The backbone of the Potomac Theatre Project’s Havel: The Passion of Thought—performed in repertory with Tom Stoppard’s Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth—are three interlinked one-acts by the dissident writer (and later President of the Czech Republic) Václav Havel. All were originally banned in his native country. In the first, Interview, Ferdinand Vaněk (David Barlow), a writer very much like his author, has been forced into manual labor and has an extended conversation with his boss, a brewmaster (Michael Laurence) who promises a cushier gig if Vaněk will only write the reports he is expected to produce about his subversive employee. In the second, Private View, a pair of friends (Christopher Marshall and Emily Kron) invite Vaněk over for a frenzied night of bourgeois appetizers and American music. Protest, the final play, has Vaněk asking a friend with ties to the government (Danielle Skraastad) to sign a letter of protest. Her deliberation makes up much of the action.
While the three plays follow a single narrative thread, they vary widely in tone. The first and most effective targets the absurdism of authoritarian government, and Laurence’s superb comic performance largely carries the message: this loutish representative of the government alternates between chumminess and outrage, but the good cop/bad cop routine is less practiced technique than sheer desperation. Throughout their interview, he is perpetually downing beers, at first with ease but eventually with a kind of athletic endurance. Private View is also funny, satirizing the love of capitalist comforts among the very people who have profited most from Communism, though it eventually becomes monotonous in its mania. Protest, unfortunately, is the weakest of the bunch, in particular because Straastad brings little weight to her performance: it is recitation rather than interpretation. Wisely, however, Barlow plays Vaněk as soft-spoken, passive. The large personalities bounce off this quiet and reflective one, offering greater dramatic contrast.
But the real treat of The Passion of Thought is not the Havel but the Pinter and Beckett who bookend him. The show begins with Harold Pinter’s “The New World Order,” a brief, hilarious, and absolutely devastating play that finds a pair of low-level government thugs (Marshall and Laurence) engaging in light banter before torturing their victim (Barlow). For the large part facing outward, toward the audience rather than toward each other, the two debate questions of minor importance that mask the violence that lays in wait. “He hasn’t the faintest idea of what we might do to him,” one says in crisp RP, while the other, a Northerner, takes his partner literally and replies, “Well, he probably has the faintest idea.” The evening then concludes with Samuel Beckett’s “Catastrophe,” which was written for a then-imprisoned Havel. An unnamed human mannequin (Barlow) stands on a pedestal and is adjusted and undressed by an assistant (Emily Ballou) following orders from a dictatorial director (Madeline Ciocci). At the end, the mannequin, shaking, slowly turns to look out into the audience, a final vision of the human cost hidden by all this bureaucratic lunacy. These two are worth the price of admission alone.