Between East and West
Next Theatre Company
By Adam Langer
Assimilating into American society is never a simple proposition, but there must be few challenges greater than those confronted by foreign artists seeking to continue their careers here. The artist must adapt not only to a new language and new culture but to a completely different set of aesthetic criteria. This city and countless others in the States are crawling with artists who were revered in their homelands as movie stars, theater directors, and screenwriters. But when a job opportunity arises here, the work is far more likely to go to some slacker with an undergraduate degree from NYU than the former artistic director of a national theater in Hungary. Once in a while artists may get a break, but even then their work is often dismissed as too European, too intellectual, too old-fashioned.
These dilemmas are particularly acute for the characters in Richard Nelson's Between East and West. Dissident Czech playwright-filmmaker Gregor Hasek and his wife Erna, an actress, are forced to flee their country in 1983 and embark upon an uncertain future in New York, where they discover a culture that has little use for their talents. There are no Hollywood directing gigs for Gregor, and to get a shot at directing Three Sisters for the Hartford Stage, he must toady to an artistic director half his age with a quarter of his intellect and an eighth of his experience. When he finally gets his first directing job, the critics respond with a two-word kiss of death: "Too European." Matters are even worse for Erna, whose poor command of English makes her afraid to answer the phone and talk even to telemarketers; pursuing her acting career is out of the question. That their marriage will disintegrate is a foregone conclusion.
Nelson is an intelligent, erudite American playwright and translator whose work has found greater favor in England than in this country, though plays like his Some Americans Abroad and Jungle Coup have occasionally been produced here. Nelson clearly understands the expatriate artist's struggles and may perhaps be responding to the tepid reception he's received stateside. But if his critique of American provincialism is somewhat self-serving, there's also a blunt truthfulness to his characterization of two artists forced apart first by a country that wouldn't have them and then by one that could not or would not understand or accept them.
With dramatic economy and clinical accuracy, Nelson calculates the toll exacted on Gregor and Erna's marriage when their talents and education become virtually irrelevant--when the promised land seems to promise them little more than jobs cleaning floors or driving taxis. Each turns on the other as the only possible outlet for their frustration, a deterioration Nelson ingeniously depicts in a nonlinear jumble of scenes. Between East and West does not merely go back in time in the tradition of Merrily We Roll Along or Betrayal (though the scenes are introduced by slide-projected titles, an apparent nod to the Pinter play). Instead Nelson's drama bounces back and forth in time, each brief scene explaining or providing a context for the previous one. Presenting scenes out of order prevents the play from ever becoming a simple, straightforward tragedy of strangers in a strange land; brimming over with pointed observations and thought-provoking ambiguities, Between East and West forces the viewer to examine the political, social, and cultural forces that make Gregor and Erna's plight inevitable.
To be sure, Nelson is not at his subtlest here. Introducing the play with Dvorak's New World Symphony and titling a scene "The Land of Opportunity" are trite, condescending tactics. And though Erna and Gregor are instantly recognizable and believable, Nelson overwrites some of the exposition; a handful of lines sound unnatural, seemingly written solely to establish the political context ("Everyone had problems with the authorities") or to display a facile contrast between East and West ("In Prague, we hid our friends' plays. Here we hide money"). And some moments designed to show Gregor and Erna's awe of their new country ring false, such as a scene in which Gregor speaks in amazement of the New York subway. (Reliable public transportation was not one of the many advantages the United States had over the Eastern Bloc.) Even so, the rare maturity and insightfulness of Nelson's writing make this all-too-brief 90-minute play an intellectually challenging and compelling experience. And it's generous of this playwright to use his art as a platform to call attention to marginalized artists who may be even less visible.
One can imagine that a stellar production might make Nelson's play devastating to watch and to reflect on afterward. Unfortunately Next Theatre's production, directed by Doug Finlayson, doesn't quite meet the standards set by the script. Tousled, wild-eyed, and drunkenly brilliant, Peter Rybolt makes a convincing Gregor, and Peggy Dunne is a fine, honest actress who manages to get across much of Erna's homesickness, fear, and frustration. But the depth of the play and the relationship between the two are somehow beyond Finlayson, whose static production seems to indicate his belief that putting two talented actors in a dramatic situation is enough to make their conflict gripping. The nonlinearity of Nelson's script is a major stumbling block; the play's first moments occur very near the breakup of Erna and Greg's marriage, but the direction and performances at this point are tentative, almost as if the characters were still getting to know each other in their new environment.
Worse, Finlayson seems to miss the gravity and singularity of the characters' predicament. He spends three of four paragraphs in his notes discussing the difficulties he faced starting over when he moved from Chicago to Arizona and then to Saint Louis. Though he allows that his struggles pale in comparison to Gregor and Erna's, it seems absurdly solipsistic to draw a parallel between being forced on the one hand to forfeit one's art, heritage, language, and culture and, on the other, adjusting to a new job and living situation in a different U.S. city. That trivialization might help explain why, in Next's production, Gregor and Erna's conflicts often seem no more than petty squabbling.
Finlayson downplays the political and ideological elements of Between East and West, but politics and ideology play a definite role in Nelson's play, which introduces some scenes with radio reports that supply the political climate of the Reaganite and Thatcherite 80s. Political, ideological, and cultural forces are what set these two characters adrift, alienated from their country, themselves, and each other. Without that context, Erna and Gregor's crisis is not nearly so consequential, and the disruption they undergo isn't much more significant than, say, moving from Lakeview to Andersonville.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Between East and West theater still by Maia Rosenfeld.