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THEATER REVIEW : Old Bolshevik Resurfaces : Tony Kushner's New 'Slavs!' Is a Dark, Poetic, Political Journey

August 01, 1995|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

LA JOLLA — The Russians in Tony Kushner's play "Slavs! Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness," love to argue. They love to argue almost as much as the American Louis Ironson did in Kushner's last play, "Angels in America." Louis couldn't have coffee without discussing the ontological meaning of freedom. Louis, however, lived in a world hurtling toward the millennium, full of scary but wondrous miracles that smacked of Steven Spielberg. The ancient Bolsheviks in "Slavs!" inhabit a world that has come to its own overly analyzed conclusion. In fact, by the end of the first act, two corpses, dead from too much talking, lie on the stage.

"Slavs!" is having its West Coast premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse in a joint production with the Mark Taper Forum, where it will open in October. The play shares a character with "Angels"--Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov--the world's oldest living Bolshevik. In both plays, Aleksii recalls with almost religious fervor the great theory of his youth, socialism in all its blinding purity. We, he tells us, are but the pygmy children of a gigantic race. In "Slavs!," Aleksii's proclamation is personified as an 8-year-old mute girl, poisoned and dying from the nuclear waste of Siberia.

The four short acts of "Slavs!" are like a series of sketches--dark, funny, often vaudevillian, that take place in the period from Gorbachev's rise in 1985 until 1992. Throughout, the debating apparatchiks confront the mess they have made. Because Kushner is an intense and poetical writer, a great shaper of words, their speeches are fascinating, compulsively listenable, even though they are nothing more than paralysis in language. The real life, the real work, is done by the country's women, starting with the old babushkas who continuously sweep the snow from the steps of the Kremlin ("A Sisyphean task," notes a comrade. "And what's more, sir, it's completely pointless!" a babushka cheerfully answers).

After a first act of speechifying, Kushner makes the political personal. Popolitipov (John Campion) falls in love with a beautiful young woman Katherina (Callie Thorne). He gets her a guard job at an unusual Soviet archive. There, with the brains of the country's former leaders floating in jars behind them, he drunkenly woos her. Katherina's rejection of Popolitipov borders on burlesque, so merciless is she to every vulnerability he shows her. Even in his self-pitying, corrupted state, Popolitipov knows he is to blame for this woman's contempt. "We have not made a world that makes people kind," he muses.

But that is not the worst of it. Rodent (Jonathan Fried), the lowliest and least intelligent of the bureaucrats, is sent as a kind of good-will ambassador to Siberia, a place where there is no goodwill and no possibility for it. There, Rodent is comically unprepared to meet the little mute girl (Cristina Hussong) and her ineffably angry mother (Randy Danson, in one of the play's multiple roles).

Director Michael Greif taps the eccentric humor in Kushner--without which the play would be too dense to make much sense of. But much of the play's humor comes off as girdled and self-conscious. Robin Bartlett, as the ancient and nearly blind Serge, makes a strangulated leap into the air in a metaphoric attempt to move the country forward. This, as well as several other of the play's most important moments, have a pinched, overly choreographed quality to them that makes the play appear more academic than director Lisa Peterson's funkier production seen in New York last year.

Despite the characteristic excess of Kushner in his subtitle for the play, "Slavs!" is a far less expansive work than "Angels in America." In the latter, an angel told us the great work had begun. In "Slavs!," the great work was done long ago, and it was done badly. But we kid ourselves at our own peril if we believe that Kushner depicts a world that has nothing to do with our own. The Soviet Union is not the only country that began, after all, with a beautiful theory.

* "Slavs! Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness," La Jolla Playhouse, Mandell Weiss Forum, La Jolla Village Drive and Torrey Pines Road, Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m. Ends Aug. 27. $23-$34. (619) 550-1010, TDD/Voice (619) 550-1030. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

With: Robin Bartlett, John Campion, Randy Danson, Jonathan Fried, Cristina Hussong, Callie Thorne.

A La Jolla Playhouse & Mark Taper Forum production. By Tony Kushner. Directed by Michael Greif. Sets and costumes Mark Wendland. Lights James F. Ingalls. Music Jill Jaffe. Sound Tony Martin & Jill Jaffe. Stage manager Mary K. Klinger.

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