Around the time former President-for-Life Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier was fleeing Haiti last year, Allan Havis was writing a play about it. "There were a couple of days," the playwright recalled, "when the headlines were running ahead of me. It was a little spooky."
The result is "Haut Gout," opening tonight on South Coast Repertory's Second Stage. "I don't know if it's a mistake to use a French title, but it seemed the most appropriate handle for the play," the 35-year-old playwright said. "It's a culinary term, meaning high taste. It also refers to the slight decay when food gets a little rancid--but is still stylish."
Here, the decay is one of spirit. "It's about an American doctor who journeys to Haiti, obstensibly to do a (government-sponsored) milk study," Havis said. "He's very much a part of the American medical ethic: healing, scientific, with a responsibility to the world's poor. But during his time there, his work, his family, his faith--which had been based on sound medical beliefs--are all challenged."
The specific attraction to Haiti? "I wanted to explore American clandestine operations in Central America and the Caribbean--and I was also by fascinated (by the culture): part African, part Anglicized, very much French. In religion, they use Catholicism and African magic/voodoo in equal parts. So there is a particular eclecticism you find there."
Writing about foreign settings is not new for the Long Island-born Havis. One of his earlier plays was "Morocco," which he admits, "I'd never been to till after I'd finished writing it--and sure enough, it felt like the real thing." As for motivation: "My last few plays have had to do with First World/Third World confrontation, but whatever the tapestry, I like an unusual conflict. I also like either the fantastical or things that are very much real--but because of some deep-seated psychology, they reverberate and don't become realistic.
"In other words, it's not television writing. It seems to me that for the stage, things should have a spin on them--so it's not just two people negotiating a real estate deal. There's something elliptical around what seems to be the main activity. That doesn't mean there can't be humor. But the net effect has to do with various explorations of hidden souls, hidden faces, things that are difficult to confront. You know, underneath the pleasantness, the good Samaritan, might be a dark angel, a possessed person."
Like Allan Havis?
"I really, really hope not," he laughed. "I know there's a school of thought that says that writing is a catharsis, burning away the demons that haunt the writer. But I think it's more about playing with one's imagination. And there is something to be said about picking up a rock and looking at the little bugs. (The resulting examination) can be witty, perverse--and the perversity is not an ugliness. It's simply breaking the norm."
Similarly, he hopes audience response will break a few norms.
"I want people to be startled, entertained, elevated, perhaps a little angry," emphasized the writer, a graduate of the Yale Drama School. "If (the material) works, they should want to come back to the theater again. But they should not be lulled, flattered. To compliment an audience is one thing; to simply flatter them would be a sin. See, I happen to love theater. And I love it when theater makes an attempt to reach for something that's difficult--rather than become just another 'entertainment.' "
Not surprisingly, Havis believes a somewhat strained writing environment can facilitate the work.
"California's just so incredibly seductive," he said earnestly. "It's the most beautiful state. That's a contradiction in making theater, because one needs a little angst . And here, there's so much wonderful living . . . I haven't figured it all out, but I think part of this feeling comes from spending a number of years in New York City. The struggle of just living there makes one more angry, more serious, slightly more misanthropic. All of that is very good breeding ground for writing and acting."
But what about fun ?
"I guess the only frivolous thing I do is read the Sunday comics," he ventured weakly. "I really love and respect serious books, serious movies, serious plays. But no, I don't have a heavy soul. And my writing has a lot of humor in it. 'Mink Sonata' was about madness and incest in the family--and it was a comedy." Definitely haut gout.