An Evening with the Family / Guardian Angel
nytheatre.com review by David Koteles
November 1, 2006
We've all seen it coming: first grammar went out the window due to the deluge of advertising lingo, and now our basic spelling abilities have all but disappeared, a casualty of text mess abrvs and spellcx. What will happen to us when communication is finally reduced to clichés and advertising copy? Will we be merely vacuous and uninteresting, or will we actually become soulless? If we lose our ability to communicate, will we exist? This tree-falling-in-a-forest question is one of the themes explored by playwright Václav Havel in two of his early plays, An Evening With the Family and Guardian Angel. On the surface, these two one-act plays are about hospitality and communication. On a deeper level, they are about media and mind control. On a still deeper level, they are about trust and totalitarianism. I don't mean to read too much into these plays, or heaven forbid scare anyone away from discovering the theatre of this important world leader and talented dissident playwright being celebrated in a six-week festival throughout the city. Havel's work, even his rougher, earlier plays, deserve to be staged and are well worth your time.
The centerpiece of the evening is An Evening With the Family, written in 1960. It was Havel's first solo effort as a playwright, but was put aside and forgotten for many years. The play was never performed until 2000, after he had become president. This is the first time it's being performed in English. However, I'm not sure this particular production by FHB Productions lives up to such significance.
In Havel's play, the characters sit around and talk about what they've recently purchased and what they want to buy next—all in dialogue that sounds lifted from commercials. Staged by Glory Sims Bowen as a showy, surreal cartoon, this farce about life's banality can barely breathe beneath all the glitter slapped onto its surface. This heavy-handed, over-directed production undermines the play's simple and vital message: we must not lose the power of communication. Unfortunately, this production has.
The play's text seems to examine an average family on a typical evening at home, enjoying their mundane lives as normal consumers. However, Bowen's production presents us with a family that is far from ordinary, in a world that is not like one we've seen before. What do thrive in this environment are Irma Escobar's excellent costumes. Witty Dr. Seuss creations in a '70s palette, with tulip skirts and silly hats, Escobar's creations evoke a vivid, colorful world with keen attention to detail, all seemingly without much of a budget—she's a designer to get your hands on for your next production, producers. However, as creative as the costumes are—and I cannot stress enough how delightful they are—they help strip the play of the important value of seeing ourselves in these characters.
Guardian Angel, the evening's opener, is a far more successful and sinister play with a far more successful and sinister production. Originally written in 1968 as a radio play, the spirit of those roots remains in Jeffrey Lewonczyk's bare-bones staging (complete with radio drama sound effects). While An Evening With the Family clearly explores themes developed by Ionesco, Guardian Angel owes heavily to Beckett (who later acknowledged this by dedicating his play Catastrophe to Havel, which is arguably about the then-imprisoned Havel). This complex and subtle two-hander, which also employs elements of Pinter and Albee, revolves around the events that ensue after a mysterious stranger appears at a writer's door. It's a dark, surprising play about trust, hospitality, and the suspension of reason. Showing great restraint, Lewonczyk and his cast, Richard Harrington and Trav S.D., and sound designer Ryan Holsopple, create a riveting piece of theatre in 20 minutes. Lewonczyk and company trust Havel's words, characters, and situation to resonate—and they do.