How It’s New York:  Václav Havel’s play Leaving is a fabulous play that hasn’t come to New York yet, because its Times review wasn’t strong enough.  Unfortunately, that’s typical.  New Yorkers are prone to think that if it’s good, we’ll get it.  But that isn’t always true.  New York also does not have a Czech bookstore, I discovered in the early 90s, when I still thought I would write my dissertation on Karel Capek, inspired by a visit from my brother Matthew Orel’s Czech friend Hanka, who traveled in 1991 to California where we lived then.  1991 was the first time many Czechs could leave the country.  She was excited to go to Kentucky Fried Chicken (believe me, by the time I visited her in 1997, and KFC was in Wenceslas Square, that was no longer true).
How It’s Irish:  Celto-Slav.  The humor in this play, with its allusions to King Lear and The Cherry Orchard, has an Irish irreverence.  And the theme taking on overfast economic grown is something Celtic Tiger cubs can surely relate to.

As promised, my review of Havel’s Leaving, in Philadelphia– where I saw it with Books Editor Michelle Woods— and in London the year before.


By Gwen Orel • May 28, 2010 • Philadelphia

Kathryn Meisle and David Strathairn in Leaving (Photo courtesy Wilma Theater)

Kathryn Meisle and David Strathairn in Leaving
(Photo courtesy Wilma Theater)

Saying that an author “inserts himself into the play” is usually a criticism. But in Leaving, Václav Havel’s first play in 20 years and now getting its U.S. premiere at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theatre, authorial intrusions make the play.

It doesn’t hurt that Academy Award winner F. Murray Abraham is the voice of these comments, which range from mischievous observations on his own writing as it appears to directions to the cast not to overact. The device not only brilliantly acknowledges Havel’s presence in a play about a high official leaving office, but it’s a wonderfully funny one, as well — especially for theater people, who will hear in it a cross between a director on the “god-mike” and their own inner monologues.
Leaving mixes elements of the absurd for which Havel is known for with a “real” situation, all the while using references to King LearThe Cherry Orchard, and Endgame. (In fact, the program states that the play is inspired by them, right under the time and place.) While on one level, the work is a satire about politics, media and celebrity, it’s also a portrait of a man dealing with change, aging and letting go, and director Jiri Zizka brings out the story’s poignancy, setting the play’s farcical elements in relief.

Chancellor Vílem Rieger (David Strathairn), is the locus for the melancholy, as he learns while giving an interview to a tabloid that he has to leave the government-owned villa he’s been in for years. That means figuring out where to go with his “long-term companion,” bossy, vain Irena (Kathryn Meisle, serving up a perfect blend of vulnerabilty and ego), daughter Zuzana (Victoria Frings), who sits on a swing talking on her cellphone and tapping on her laptop, Grandma (Janis Dardaris), and assorted secretaries and servants, including deaf old Oswald (Geddeth Smith). As 15 people come in and out, we see that not only Rieger’s garden, but also his life, is seriously cluttered.
Daughter Vlasta (Jennifer R. Morris, in severe riding gear) offers to take Daddy in, then recants, while insisting he sign over property. There’s also graduate student Bea (Mary McCool), who worships Rieger, then makes out with him. Meanwhile, Patrick Klein (Trevor Long), the new Prime Minister, steals Rieger’s slogans about government serving the people, while inverting all of his policies — and also appropriating one of Rieger’s secretaries, the obsequious Victor (Luigi Sottile).
There are literally hundreds of entrances and exits, and designer Klara Zieglerova highlights this with a set full of doors all over walls covered with grass. The costumes by Vasilija Živanic wink at Czech and American images: Irena looks suspiciously like Havel’s second wife Dagmar crossed with Nancy Reagan; Grandma looks like a storybook Czech babicka, complete with shawl and apron; and Klein looks like Rudy Giuliani-turned-mafioso in pin-striped suit and slicked hair.
Strathairn, with his hangdog expression and gentle delivery, makes us care for Rieger, even though his weakness with women reflects his weakness in the face of brute strength. When he talks about his cherry orchard, it’s both hilarious and pathetic.
Although the energy flags a bit towards the end of Act One, the show’s humor does not suffer. The mad scene in the storm raises chuckles, and the surprise of actual rain onstage has beauty and terror — as does the play, which somehow manages to mix Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Beckett with Havel’s own kind, but sharp eye on humanity.
And from 2008, also on Theatermania, here’s my review of the production at the Orange Tree:

AGeoffrey Beevers in Leaving (© Robert Day)
Geoffrey Beevers in Leaving
(© Robert Day)

Václav Havel’s new play, Leaving, at the Orange Tree Theatre, turns an ironic, yet hopeful eye to the future, and brilliantly satirizes and poeticizes the current political stage. When soon-to-be-former Chancellor, Dr. Vilem Rieger (Geoffrey Beevers) gives an interview to tabloid reporters, he’s surprised to learn he’s expected to leave the villa too. The new Prime Minister plans to turn a government building into a casino, mall, and strip club. Meanwhile, Rieger’s “long-time companion,” the elegant Zuzana (Faye Castelow), overmanages the politician. Then Havel’s own voice, as voiceover, speaks to the audience: cinnamon in beer, he explains, is authorial whimsy. As the audience begins fidgeting during a long pause without actors, Havel praises “the emptiness of the world concentrated into a few minutes.” The device, both funny and profound, contextualizes Havel as playwright and playwright as theatrical presence. Yet, there are pure theatrical pleasures to be had, too, including a group happy-dance to “Ode to Joy.” Thanks to Sam Walters’ precise direction, the acting never becomes cartoonish, and Paul Wilson’s translation is clear and smart. 

Gwen Orel
About the Author

The only New York journalist who writes for both the Forward and Irish Music Magazine.