The Garden Party / Mistake
nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
October 28, 2006
The Garden Party is the absurdist play that brought critical acclaim in 1963 to Vaclav Havel, playwright, dissident, and former president of the Czech Republic. It is one of 18 plays by this writer that make up the festival celebrating his 70th birthday this month. And there is no better time than midterm elections to be revisiting a play that pokes fun at bureaucracies. In particular, this play artfully shows how empty language can be when it is not followed by the actions it promises and how brilliant simple logic can seem in the middle of madness. What leads to this state of affairs is a large bureaucracy and the belief by its characters that that they each wield enough power to exclude others from it—fear and chaos. In The Garden Party we have a lively circus of colorful automatons paralyzed into inaction.
The play follows Hue Plume, a chess fanatic, as he searches for Frank Cannabis, a successful corporate bigwig who has not shown up for his parents' garden party. Hue finds himself in a bureaucratic office with two downsizing executives, a self-important man from speaker services, a secretary, and a CEO. Rumors abound and the characters alternate between fear of speaking and authoritative proclamations that downsizing is about to take place.
Havel's dialog is filled with clever repetition and funny non sequiturs. The characters are empty, superficial. Their words and rhythms become all important, because there is no meaning behind them. Mixed bromides abound, such as "Life is nothing but a fumbled football", or "If life hands you a lemon, bat it out of the park," or "The whole point of life is having an opinion about life"—all leading to Havel's point: "The middle class is forever. The rich can lose it. The poor can make it (so I hear), but they need the middle class as a buffer." Andrea Boccanfuso superbly directs a top-notch cast as they poke and prod with insane speed at the inefficiency, the waste, the clichés, and the doublespeak that define a bureaucratic culture. Nothing is too ridiculous for this office: power shifts faster than the speed of light, so does propriety and sexual entanglement. The CEO is so comfortable he strips to his flowered boxer shorts, ceding his position to the unsuspecting outsider, Hue, who loses his identity as he gains power. But there is hope. And Hue, the only rational character, is the one to deliver it.
The polished cast fills the theatre with energy and spark. Michael Marion is big and broad as the working class father, Ollie Plume. He resembles a ridiculous Archie Bunker in his sleeveless undershirt and a bold floral tie as he delivers mixed adages to his wife and two sons. Kristine Waters plays his striving housewife with appropriate flamboyance. John Kohan easily fits as their hippie son Mark, and James Bentley delivers an intelligent, if not intellectual, contrast to the babble around him as Hue. David Nelson gives life to his character, Frank Slug, so that he is appropriately overeager, the kind of loudmouth-of-an-employee who appears to hold enough power to keep everyone on edge. Rounding out the crisp performances are Steve Russo and Laura Stockton as the downsizing executives, Sergei Burbank as the representative from speaker services, and Alley Scott as Alma, a secretary-type who hand-delivers emails to the Plumes. The new translation by Jan Novak allows for contemporary references such as emails.
As in any bureaucracy, there is a uniform. Credit Meredith Neal with amplifying the circus environment with her daring yet whimsical costume design. None of the men shows up for work without colorful tights, cropped trousers, ridiculous ties, and oversized lapel flowers. Only Hue dresses in unobtrusive slacks, shirt, blazer, and tie, making him stand out in this crowd. Heather Wolensky designed the set dominated by a large chess board.
Double-billed with The Garden Party is The Mistake, also by Vaclav Havel. It is a short puppet play, directed by Isaac Rathbone and Jennifer Rathbone, in which four prisoners greet a new cellmate with a list of rules that must be followed or else they will all be punished. It comes across as more statement than drama, and was written in response to Havel's political imprisonment. The voices in the play are taped, giving a tinny, institutional feel. Sahlon Palmer created the puppets, which are operated by Laura Stockton, Alley Scott, and Kristine Waters. John Kohan designed the modest set, whose wee sign is a bit small to read from afar. Jay Scott and Brett Marshall Lefferts designed lighting and sound, respectively, for both plays.