Tony Kushner’s “Slavs!” just might be the best out-take of a Pulitzer Prize-winning play ever written. That it’s probably the only one doesn’t detract from this eccentric work’s successes, nor does it entirely mask the play’s limitations.
Or one limitation, really. The one-act play — full title: “Slavs! (Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness)”– is, essentially, a patchwork series of linked sketches. Included is one minor character and a full speech from “Perestroika,” the second part of Kushner’s “Angels in America.” From there, “Slavs!” spins a wild riff on the pain and challenge of millennial upheaval that moves from a secret chamber in Moscow housing Lenin’s brain to a Siberian pediatric hospital overwhelmed by a generation of children made mutant by decades of nuclear experiments and waste.
Long before the action proceeds to heaven, “Slavs!” makes clear that its geography lies more in Kushner’s fanciful imagination than any real map of Russia.
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As in the America of “Angels,” the playwright’s Russia is populated with people who thrive on ideas and debate. One man even dies from too many words.
That man is Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov (Joseph Wiseman), the world’s oldest living Bolshevik, who in 1985 addresses the Hall of the Soviets on the dangers of entering a new era without first devising a system of order, a “great theory” to guide the nation through chaos. This, of course, is the prologue from “Perestroika,” and after its delivery, the old man joins other obsolete old men in an anteroom where discussion mourns and celebrates the passing of an epoch.
In this early scene, Kushner has his characters voice the themes that will be illustrated, in more dramatic fashion, later in the play. Aleksii’s passion for the ideas that sparked revolution is nearly convincing, but Kushner later sets about showing just what atrocity was wrought by the “classic text.” After the farcical meeting of the comrades, “Slavs!” proceeds to the victims of Aleksii’s “beautiful theory.”
Among them are the young, alcoholic lesbian Katherina (Marisa Tomei), the “Revolution’s great-granddaughter” who welcomes chaos as an end to “the great age of boredom,” and her lover Bonfila (Mary Shultz), a pediatrician exiled to Siberia after the relationship is discovered. There, Bonfila struggles in vain to treat the strange children made zombie-like by nuclear waste. They are, Kushner suggests, theproduct of Aleksii’s passion.
Unlike “Angels,””Slavs!” offers little by way of action or plot, its resonance coming from the clash of characters and the often mesmerizing beauty of its language.
The feelings between Bonfila and Katherina survive even Siberia and, in the most moving scene in the play, a mother’s devotion to her sick child overrides the rage she feels at her leaders. As he did for Roy Cohn, Kushner even manages compassion for the men who brought disaster, presenting a reunion in the afterlife of the two old communists and the little girl whose cancer they caused.
Too often, the episodic structure of the play gives “Slavs!” a disjointed feel, yet even lacking an easy narrative flow, the work haunts with its images. The familiar Kushner touches are everywhere: ghostly apparitions, comedy in the depths of despair, illness as metaphor for spiritual void, all presented with the dense poetry of his dialogue in a near-seamless melding of the metaphysical, political and personal.
Yet if the whole of “Slavs!” doesn’t quite equal the sum of its parts, the reason must be its sprawling nature. The cast is, by and large, quite good, with Tomei, Shultz and Barbara eda-Young (as the mother of the sick child) giving strong voice to the women.
Unfortunately, little Mischa Barton as the “nuclear mutant” child isn’t up to the speechifying, and the play’s end suffers for it.
Director Lisa Peterson juggles the shifting moods deftly, although her production on a smaller Actors Theater of Louisville stage last spring better captured the frenetic sense of the opening Kremlin scene.
Peterson is more at ease with the intellectual aspects of the play, contributing little warmth even when the text would allow. She undercuts the play’s final moments, for example, by having the actors deliver their closing lines with a heavy-handed stare.
Otherwise, the play gets a worthy production here. Neil Patel’s sets are perhaps more efficient than attractive, yet that might not be entirely out of keeping with Kushner’s vision. So “Slavs!” isn’t the elaborate breath-taker that “Angels” was. What is?