Prague, 1974. Four people sitting around a
kitchen table at midnight. Yes, it is true, says the woman. She and
her husband probably are "more afraid than necessary." But then they
have seen what happened to those who were less afraid than
It's a scene from Larry Shue's "Wenceslas Square"
at the Matrix Theatre, the best show at this address since "The
Common Pursuit." In a season of phantoms and fiddlers, here's a
quietly spoken play whose echoes can still be felt the next morning.
The biggest echo is that of the recent events in
Tian An Men Square. What happens to artists and intellectuals when
they have been released into the light, and then are yanked back
into the dark? "Believe me," somebody says, "it's not that
Which somehow makes Shue's play all the more
telling. Its second echo is that of recent events in Washington. If
the light ever went out for American artists, it wouldn't be a
sudden power cut, but a long slow fade.-First a legislative hearing,
then a museum cancellation. . . . One would complain, of course. But
one must live.
And one might live quite well. One might end up
with a summer place in the country. This would involve a certain
amount of compromise, but mature people know when to bend with "the
situation." And not just behind the Iron Curtain.
But that is the scene of Shue's play. It does not
bring us any new intellectual information. Everybody knows that
artists and writers in Czechoslovakia can't speak their minds. We
are reminded of it every time the government finds a new reason to
throw Vaclav Havel in jail.
But what does it feel like to live in such a
country? The thing that makes "Wenceslas Square" so
effective—besides director Lee Shallat's superb cast—is that it
doesn't pretend to have any inside knowledge of this.
It is content to convey the things that a visitor
might notice over a week's stay—the situation of Shue's hero, an
American professor who has come to see what happened to the
rebellious Czech theater after the false promise of 1968's "Prague
Everything seems much the same. But there is a
slight pause when an actor is asked if he is still performing with
so-and-so. There's a meaningful curl of the lip when a toast is
raised to national television. There's a warning inflection to
phrases like "the situation" or "it was political," as if to say:
Don't let's pursue this.
Little things, but they register. And it's clear
that they're exquisitely painful to the very civilized people who
are trying to make light of them, or ignore them. Shue's play—a
complete surprise after his slam-bang farces, "The Nerd" and "The
Foreigner"—isn't about the secret police breaking down the door.
But, if drama means inner conflict, it's thick with it.
Thick, but not heavy. One couldn't call this play
a comedy, but its characters are witty people who try to look on the
bright side of things, often with considerable success. There is,
for example, the eternal comedy of trying to understand another's
language—and the wonderful rush when your pidgin English breaks
through to the other party's less-than-pidgin Czech.
Adam Arkin has some lovely moments here, and he's
devastating when he raises that toast to television. James Sloyan
and Richard Murphy are also first-rate as the American professor and
his student photographer, both innocents from the land where the
only problems are personal ones.
But the performance of record-three performances,
actually—is that of Nancy Lenehan. Lenehan embodies a cautious young
translator, a ferocious old translator and a sophisticated arts
administrator. There isn't anything about any one of these women
that the actress fails to tell us, while letting us
The rest of the review is lost