Between Interest and Boredom

Summer theater is the sort of oxymoron that conjures up farcical epithets such as "dramatic hot dog stand," to use the term coined by the late George Jean Nathan, the esteemed American theater critic. Or "straw-hat trail," the term used by others to denote the sartorial choices of the supposed morons who make up the audience of resort-town productions from the Berkshires to the Outer Banks. In South Florida, however, we're more fortunate. Summer is a fertile season, bringing Shakespeare and Shepard with at least the same regularity as thunder showers and traffic jams.

A nonstop flow of political exiles is also a Florida summer staple, and this month they're visible in Between East and West, the seldom-performed 1985 Richard Nelson work now at the New Theatre in Coral Gables. Nelson, a living American playwright, isn't exactly a household name. His best-known works -- Some Americans Abroad and Principia Scriptoriae -- have had only limited financial success in New York. (You may remember him as the author of the book for the failed Broadway musical Chess.) A contemporary of Sam Shepard and David Mamet, he's more popular in England than in the United States, and he's virtually absent from the repertoire of overly familiar American dramas presented ad nauseam in small theaters nationwide.

So it's a pleasant surprise to have him show up in Coral Gables. But Between East and West, alas, is a minor Nelson work; people hoping to learn more about an important theatrical voice may come away unimpressed. Still, it's no mystery why Rafael de Acha, New Theatre artistic director, selected it. Between East and West is the rare play (there's a glut of novels) about the late-20th-century immigrant experience in America. Set in 1983, the story follows a middle-aged married couple, Gregor and Erna Hasek, recent Czech political exiles who sublease a tiny New York apartment while searching for work in the theater.

Gregor, in love with his new home and quickly mastering the new language, eagerly hunts for a directing job. Erna, an actress, isn't adapting as quickly. Restricted by her inability to navigate English, she's something of a prisoner in the apartment. (In this production, she's also something of a tiresome whiner who doesn't seem as though she'd be happy anywhere.) Her survival strategy is to persuade Gregor to return to their homeland, despite the government crackdown on artists that originally sent them packing.

Sitting at home bored while Gregor explores the city, Erna takes a stab at reading newspaper headlines: "Mr. Reagan tries to run over the opposition with a hard-line approach." The language mystifies her, but when she asks Gregor to help translate, he shrugs her off. "I don't need a newspaper to tell me what's happening at home," he says, referring to his general disdain for politics. In New York he reads only the theater papers, "to learn who's important, for instance." And, Erna wants to know, who is important? Gregor's reply: "Dustin Hoffman is important."

At the New Theatre, the play is staged entirely on one set, which depicts the Haseks' efficiency apartment, dominated by a dining room set, a couch, and a TV. Sketches of Eastern European skylines rise over the sides of the stage. The action unfolds as a series of blackout sketches.

We first encounter Erna and Gregor after they have been in New York several months. Gregor has landed a job at the prestigious Hartford Stage in nearby Hartford, Connecticut. Summoned back to Manhattan by a disturbing phone call from Erna, he discovers she is on the brink of returning to Prague.

From that point the play uses flashbacks to fill in the Haseks' history, presumably to help us understand how they've arrived at this critical juncture. Oddly, though, playwright Nelson, normally a careful dramatic architect, employs a type of storytelling that's better suited to mystery, suspense, or emotional revelation. Here there's no mystery, really, about what has driven Erna to feel alienated in a strange country, or why the strain might affect the couple's marriage. It's hardly a surprise to learn that Erna and Gregor have different memories of their first day in New York or that they don't adjust in the same way.

We learn nothing of consequence by having events relayed to us in flashbacks. In fact, the structure of Between East and West actually keeps us at arm's length from the two characters. We hear them talk about their experiences in Prague, but we don't get a sense of who these people were before they left for America. Telling Gregor and Erna's story chronologically might not be particularly compelling, given how incompletely conceived they are, but the flashbacks set up audience expectations that are never met. We piece together bits of the Haseks' story only to find there's no payoff.

As the play's title suggests, Erna and Gregor are stuck in a frustrating limbo between their past and their future. Missing, however, are the details that might make them more than generic exiles who have fled an oppressive government. They never come to life as human beings for whom dislocation exacts a huge emotional price.

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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