nytheatre.com review by Di Jayawickrema
October 31, 2010
Vaclav Havel's The Memorandum has been only rarely seen on the New York stage since its American premiere in 1968 and it remains as relevant now as it was in the shadow after the fall of Stalinism when it was written. An absurdist, quasi-tragic meeting of Office Space and Franz Kafka, the play chronicles how the introduction of Ptydepe, "a thoroughly exact language," nearly destroys an office and its managing director's sanity.
Set on an appropriately sterile, minimalist stage designed by Adrian W. Jones, the deputy director Mr. Ballas, played by Mark Alhadeff, announces to the bewildered director, Mr. Gross, played by James Prendergast, that Ptydepe will replace English as the official language of the office as it is a more "precise" language without the emotional connotations of "natural language." This means the institution of training centers, Ptydepe classes, Ptydepe experts and translators—and the swift replacement of Ballas for Gross as managing director. Gross is adamantly opposed to this change as he is afraid the "precision" will destroy the humanity of communication, which proves to be very true. The entire cast, with the exception of Prendergast, speaks in tellingly clipped tones and Havel's script has a biting undertone that underscores the isolating effect and ludicrousness of the situation. The Ptydepists have decided that the only way to create an accurate language is to introduce a high degree of redundancy, which means a word like "Boo!" will now have dozens of variants that are all spelled like "Tejaifao waeapj djapsdja"—an absolutely muddling, pointless change in the name of simplification.
The play opens with Gross receiving the titled memorandum, which he can't read as it's in Ptydepe. He spends much of The Memorandum trying to get it translated, only to find he needs "personal registration forms" to get translation services but to get these forms, he needs to know Ptydepe, leading to a "vicious, vicious circle." Eventually Gross is beaten down into accepting the new regime just as all the Ptydepists are falling prey to the same dilemma as Gross and the whole system collapses in on itself. There is a great deal of repetition in dialogue and situations, which is effective but lends a stifling, claustrophobic tone to the play. David Toser's costumes are appropriate crisply tailored and drably colored. The entire production is very well-executed and none of the play's meaning is lost but some of the jokes do get buried in the grim undercurrents. If you are looking for easy, "fun" satire, The Memorandum is not it.