Between Interest and Boredom

In fact, for most of the play, all we know about Erna is that she wants to go home. So intent is director Roberto Prestigiacomo on emphasizing this point that he allows several platinum acting opportunities to escape his cast. For example, Marta Velasco's Erna reads an English grammar book with no feeling until she happens upon this sentence: "We went home." I couldn't help imagining what a better actress (and director) might have done with this scene, in which all the textbook phrases -- not just the most obvious one -- could be infused with emotion. To quote Gregor as he describes working under the censorious eye of Czech authorities: "You can say a lot of different things with the same words."

As Gregor, David Kwiat portrays a more sympathetic character. It's easy to like Gregor because he's easy to please. He's charmed by the frenetic Manhattan subway system, for example. Hell, he's even charmed by Harlem. "America, I love you!" he yells out the window while drunk. Unfortunately he yells quite a few of his lines while sober, too. This noise level is not just off-putting because the theater is small; it's annoying because the part demands more subtlety. To be fair, the playwright doesn't help matters much. He doesn't convey a palpable sense of what Gregor left behind, except for shapeless chunks of immigrant angst that find their way into dialogue. As for the excruciating frustration endured by an artist working under government censure, we hear little of Gregor's experience in Czechoslovakia beyond his comment to his wife: "What I went through to make it, even you never imagined."

More than halfway through the play, however, one powerful scene does illuminate the Haseks. With Gregor's help Erna rehearses for an upcoming audition. The role is one well-known to her (or to any actress), that of Irena in Chekhov's The Three Sisters. What's foreign to her is the language. Until this point Marta Velasco's performance has been utterly unremarkable. But here, through her halting pronunciation of the English script, Velasco is able to project Erna's desire to connect with her old life in the theater, a life that has eluded her in New York. We finally see her as the actress she once was. But by this time, of course, it's too late for us to care.

It is intriguing that The Three Sisters, a play about the longing of people isolated in the provinces, should be the script that elicits a passionate reaction from a woman who finds herself in one of the world's great theater cities. Had Chekhov's Irena found herself in New York, she would have thought she'd died and gone to heaven. Erna, on the other hand, wants to return to a place where her emotional life is predictable and safe.

Unlike Chekhov's character, Erna's not at all pining for something she can't have. Rather, she's like a spoiled child who insists on having something that's not good for her. It's not clear whether Nelson intended this juxtaposition to be ironic. In fact it's never clear whether the playwright is more interested in drawing a portrait of a marriage in peril or in portraying immigration through its hazards to one particular marriage. But in the New Theatre production, the yearning to go home -- to Moscow, to Prague, to Any City -- is nearly an empty one. Despite the playwright's good intentions, the immigrant experience depicted in Between East and West is neither here nor there.

Between East and West.
Written by Richard Nelson. Directed by Roberto Prestigiacomo. Starring David Kwiat and Marta Velasco. Through August 2. New Theatre, 65 Almeria Ave., Coral Gables, 305-443-5909.

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