Nearly 35 years after its premiere, Vaclav Havel’s biting bureaucratic satire “The Memorandum” rings truer than ever. But it also drags a bit, for its themes are well worn and its pace too leisurely. In the stylish staging directed by Jessica Kubzansky now at the Odyssey, Havel’s play offers a showcase for some fine acting and clever production choices, but even trimmed, its length proves a decided drawback.
Play is set at an unnamed firm that produces an unnamed product. Mr. Gross (John Ross Clark), the managing director, is slowly being undermined by his deputy, Mr. Ballas (Michael David Edwards), and a mute cohort named Mr. Pillar (David Dionisio). Scheming to have the company’s internal documents transcribed into Ptydepe, an impossibly recondite nonsense language, Ballas and Pillar believe efficiency will be improved. In fact, they’ve organized a whole department of Ptydepe right under Mr. Gross’ nose.
Before long, the baffled Mr. Gross has been demoted, and Mr. Ballas elevated. Yet strong as the urge is to impose Ptydepe on the firm, its very abstruseness prevents such application.
Eventually, the tide turns against Mr. Ballas, and Mr. Gross regains his position, but only after confidence in the firm’s management has been destroyed.
Havel’s point, of course, is to reveal and condemn the dehumanizing effects of corporatism, be it capitalist or socialist in form. And so Mr. Gross’ foolishness, Mr. Ballas’ duplicity and the workers’ gullibility and lack of initiative are all subject to the playwright’s withering judgment. As Havel is no pedant, however, his message is cloaked in humor.
And it’s that underlying sense of the comically absurd that Kubzansky and her cast handle so effectively. The director practically choreographs her actors, and so seeing this production is very nearly as important as hearing it. On and off the stage, characters trundle, march or slink. Michael Marlowe’s simple, wheeled sets feature streams of superimposed letters on various panels, heightening this production’s aptly surreal quality. But Audrey Fisher’s costumes, ordinary business suits topped with quarter-length smocks, seem needlessly silly.
As Mr. Gross, Clark is the biggest disappointment in the cast. Granted, his character tends toward the vapid, but the actor lends the managing director neither heart nor pathos. On the other hand, Edwards dominates the stage with his scheming, uppity Mr. Ballas. And Dionisio does fine, characterful work in his nearly nonspeaking part.
Kent Davis, as the head of the Ptydepe translation center, and Michael James Reed, as the play’s Ptydepe expert, handle their juicy roles with relish, as does Gail Godown, who plays the chairman (of what no one seems to know) with healthy lasciviousness. In mirror images of each other, Beth Kennedy portrays Hana, secretary to the managing director, with brisk airheadedness, while Nancy Anne Ridder makes Maria, secretary at the translation center, a sweet-tempered bundle of nerves.
Havel’s garrulous play, especially in an engaging production such as this one, offers much to think about and laugh at, but if the show’s going to captivate modern auds, more ’90s-era downsizing is in order.