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STAGE REVIEW : 'Cockroaches' Has More Than Just a Few Bugs

November 13, 1987|SYLVIE DRAKE | Times Theater Writer

In Europe, cockroaches are Kafkaesque. In the United States, they're just pesky pests to be hunted down and squashed. It's the difference between poetry and pragmatism.

In Janusz Glowacki's often funny but oh-so-thin "Hunting Cockroaches," at the Mark Taper Forum, it is also emblematic of the culture chasm into which immigrants inevitably fall--none harder than the artists--and from which they must emerge or be forever mired in the sludge.

Enka (Swoosie Kurtz) and Janek (Malcolm McDowell) are one such couple fresh from Poland, though fresh may be too strong a word. It's been about three years.

We meet them in the course of a sleepless night in their dingy Lower East Side apartment, during which actress Enka gives us the drollest interpretation of Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene (in a thick, drippingly accurate Eastern European accent that relishes every rolled r )--and writer Janek outlines for us the differences between the map of Europe (where frontiers "twist and turn like worms in a can") and that of the United States (clearly, says he, "laid out by someone with technical training").

It's a simple little play (entirely too little), based on a faulty technicality, and remarkable mostly for the comic mileage Glowacki extracts from an essentially tragic situation: the cultural dispossession and paralysis of the uprooted.

(Richard Nelson's "Between East and West," which played the Callboard recently, dealt with an almost identical situation on a serious, less attractive level; that play ended with the couple splitting up and the actress-wife heading back to the Prague she came from.)

That Enka cannot act because of her speech is a matter she would rather ignore ("They say I have an awful accent," she tells the audience with monumental disingenuousness. "Do I? . . ."). Janek's difficulty is that he cannot write, prompting Enka to lament: "A morbid brain like yours is being wasted." He can find nothing to write about, claims Janek. The problem, of course, goes much deeper. Meanwhile, there is rent to be paid, mouths to be fed, lives to be made, careers to be forged.

It is a night of real and imagined nightmares, some of whose characters are disgorged at will from under the bed (a device that's clever for about 10 minutes): assorted figures of authority, American and not; a Polish censor; a gushing pair of philanthropists flippantly hot to help; a Village bum who lives in the park nearby.

Two other characters are prominent: the hanging light above the bed that gets turned on and off with a frequency that becomes almost irritating--and the ubiquitous telephone. That's the most sinister player of all, an object of fear, pathetic recourse and bittersweet comedy. It is one of Glowacki's better ideas.

There aren't too many more. What Glowacki lacks in plot development (there isn't any), he tries to make up in talented portraiture, particularly when it comes to Enka whose indestructible sense of humor is the key to her survival.

She has learned every inflection of the night-roaming police sirens like a musical score. She is great at inventing enviable forms of American-style mainstream success that she can pretend she and Janek have achieved when catty emigre friends call in with their own real or imagined successes. And she explains to Janek that the powder she uses to kill the cockroaches was recommended by a Polish actress, who married two Hollywood producers and moved on to greater glories--a particularly stinging achievement, since she was "only the third witch" to Enka's Lady Macbeth.

The role of Janek is altogether more subdued, though it has its moments that McDowell, on the whole, delivers. The performance, however, is severely marred by his trouble with the Eastern European accent, in and out of which he slips with alarming frequency. Not so Kurtz, who revels in her triumphant mastery of the heavy, rolling syllables. Aptly, her speech becomes a partner in comedy, only further pointing up the real loss to McDowell.

Arthur Penn has directed with good punctuation and a low profile, allowing the wit to speak for itself. But it's Glowacki's play that is ultimately troublesome. Comical tangents are as far as he ventures when it comes to plot. He is depicting a condition-- a stuck state of being, rather than a way to move on. It gives us a stuck play, full of charm, not substance.

It is diminished partly by this lack of content and largely because it's predicated on an element of pure artifice: two Poles who have trouble with the English language, speaking broken English to each other in the privacy of their own bedroom in the middle of the night. Call it a form of dramatic license, if you like, but the situation remains fundamentally screwy.

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