Whenever Soviet or Eastern European emigres decide to go back home, Americans scratch their heads. Isn't everyone over there yearning to breathe free?
In "Between East and West," at the Callboard Theatre, a marriage dissolves over this issue. Gregor (Richard Green) wants to stay in America; Erna (Larisa Eryomina) wants to go back to Prague. In an admirable balancing act, playwright Richard Nelson treats both points of view with respect and sympathy. Some differences truly are irreconcilable.
Erna's position needs more explaining than Gregor's. Or perhaps explaining isn't the right word. She is homesick. This must be felt, not rationalized. She doesn't give America much of a chance (she watches 10 seconds of American television before scoffing), but to her such concerns are irrelevant.
Nelson wisely refrained from giving Erna a lot of monologues about the sun coming up over the Vlatava. Those of us who have never seen the Vlatava might not understand.
Instead, we see Erna's suffering. It's in the clouded gaze of Eryomina (herself a Soviet emigre), as Erna mopes around her Manhattan sublet. It's in the temporary light in her eyes when she tries to seduce Gregor into going back by showing him photos of the old days and serving him a Czech wine.
Finally, she collapses in sorrow over a phrase from an English lesson. And, late in the play, we see that the language barrier is more troubling for her than it would be for most immigrants. For in Prague, she was an actress, yet here she can't speak the language. Her attempts to do so, while rehearsing a scene from "Three Sisters," are funny and sad.
Gregor is a director. Not only does he speak English better than his wife, but he wouldn't have to speak it in public, from a stage, as she would. So the language doesn't bother him. What bothers him are memories of repression in Prague. And when his wife pulls out the photo album to soften him up, her strategy backfires. The photos remind him of why he left.
Not that everything works out for Gregor. Unable to find work as a director, he considers driving a cab. Finally he's offered a play in Hartford. His wife is astounded that Americans take a mere five weeks to stage a play; still, that's five too many weeks away from Erna. This is a woman who summons up the courage to go outdoors only if her destination is the Czech consulate.
Erna tells Gregor that Americans will always think of him as a foreigner, but Gregor is convinced that in America he can become known as a director rather than a Czech director. Considering the number of American directors who were born elsewhere, he may be right. But the reaction to his play in Hartford is not encouraging.
Occasionally, Nelson hints of a dimension outside these two people. Whenever they turn on the TV news, we hear reports of the controversy over American missiles in Europe. The play was first produced in 1984; the recent agreement to dismantle those missiles dates these brief moments.
Still, as a study of a couple at a crossroads, "Between East and West" has a timeless quality. Homesickness and hope are not topical emotions. Neither is the pain of lovers splitting up.
Staged by Pavel Cerny, himself a Czech immigrant, the performances are true and touching. Although the blackouts between scenes are long and cumbersome, Green and Eryomina pace themselves well, revealing only so much with each scene, letting the cumulative effect build.
Oscar Schwarz's set isn't quite right. It looks artificial instead of authentically tacky. But the worst thing about the production is the temperature of the theater during the matinee, as well as the creak of the Callboard floor. It's not an ideal venue, but it's an intriguing play.