Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

Richard Romagnoli has had one stroke of genius, one stroke of casting, and quite a few strokes of excellent luck in mounting Potomac Theatre Project’s ferociously effective Havel: The Passion of Thought.

The genius is in the conception. Romagnoli takes three brief, dissident-Everyman sketches by Czech dissident-playwright-turned-president Vaclav Havel (Audience, Private View, and Protest) and brackets them with a pair of similarly themed plays by Harold Pinter (New World Order) and Samuel Beckett (Catastrophe).

Washington audiences have seen all of these plays performed separately—and quite capably—by PTP and other companies. But by presenting them in tandem and assigning a single actor the central role in all of them, Romagnoli has transformed familiar, seemingly repetitive material into a provocative new work. Taken individually, the plays comment on the abuses of totalitarian regimes; together, they form a startling treatise on the use and abuse of artists by regimes of all sorts, whether governmental or merely social. To suggest that the production is greater than the sum of its parts is to damn it with faint praise. It feels like a whole new work.

The lights first come up on Pinter’s New World Order, in which a bound and hooded figure (Christopher Lane) sits silently before two gleefully vicious interrogators.

“He hasn’t got any idea at all of what we’re going to do to him,” says one with a grin.

“Or his wife,” chirps the other. “Don’t forget his wife.”

Pinter penned the play in response to the Persian Gulf War, and when Romagnoli staged its American premiere a few years ago at PTP, he freighted it with all the darkness and foreboding his actors could muster. This time, the director’s touch is lighter. His interrogators wear crisp white shirts and black ties—they could as easily be stockbrokers as thugs—and their banter about “keeping the world clean for democracy” has the glibly nasty tone found in films by Neil LaBute and Quentin Tarantino.

The next three plays, all by Havel, give the hooded figure a name and occupation—Ferdinand Vanek, dissident playwright—and a smile that is understandably clouded by perplexity and fear. Surviving that initial interrogation turns out to have been child’s play compared with negotiating his way through social minefields once he’s been identified as a troublemaker. In Audience, we see a Vanek who has been stripped of the right to pursue any sort of intellectual life, who is reduced to laboring in a brewery. Called before his overhearty boss (James Matthew Ryan), he is plied with beer, cajoled, threatened, embraced, and, ultimately, asked to inform on himself.

In Private View, his best friends from his pre-interrogation days (Tyson Lien and Michole Biancosino, both in upscale overdrive) invite him over to their sumptuously redecorated apartment so they can tell him how worried they are about the way he’s living. Having stayed on the good side of the regime, they’ve reaped the benefits of its largesse—stylish clothes, CDs from the U.S., an obscenely opulent lifestyle—and they can’t understand why Vanek and his wife don’t “make the effort.” Then, in Protest, this principled artist who has suffered for remaining true to his ideals must listen as a successful, cautiously independent-minded filmmaker (Ryan again) kvetches about no longer being respected by his fellow intellectuals and suggests that he should get credit for steering a middle course.

If the evening ended there, the plays would function much as they do when mounted independently. But Romagnoli uses Catastrophe, which Beckett specifically dedicated to Havel in 1982, to broaden their impact in an intriguing way. Catastrophe is a sketch in which a dictatorial theater director, with the aid of a comically put-upon assistant, manipulates a male figure standing on a pedestal until he has reduced him to an all-purpose stage icon: the refugee, at once vulnerable and defiant. With Lane playing this male figure, the weight of Vanek’s integrity, both as man and as artist, informs the sequence, and the stylized realism of the previous playlets takes a leap toward the symbolic. Even if you don’t see Vanek as a stand-in for Havel, the figure being manipulated is no longer simply a neutral male figure or Everyman—he’s Everyartist. His status as icon and as victim is necessarily altered by that distinction.

So are the earlier plays, each of which ordinarily ends ambiguously with the suggestion that life’s many persecutions will continue and that nothing ever really changes. Beckett’s Catastrophe puts a definite period to its protagonist’s trials—which means that when that protagonist is Vanek, the Havel plays acquire a payoff. It may not be the payoff their author envisioned—or, for that matter, that Beckett envisioned—but in dramatic terms, the audience takes a journey that always leads to way stations, and this time it reaches a destination.

PTP’s performers are all fine, with Ryan particularly effective in delineating the differing rationalizations that individuals of working-class and intellectual backgrounds use to justify their own craven behavior. But the evening’s heft comes from the casting of Lane in the central role, and the remarkably nuanced and dignified persona he’s created. Havel’s Vanek is almost entirely a reactive character. He speaks only a little (in the Pinter and Beckett plays, his counterparts utter not a single word), yet from the flickering disappointment in Lane’s puzzled gaze, and the fading half-smile with which he greets each new humiliation, there emerges a full and rounded character.

Oddly, given all the trials Vanek goes through, it’s the other characters who most often seem desperate. Or perhaps that’s not so odd, because they need affirmation from Vanek—which is to say, from the artist—more than he needs anything from them.

The author’s tack in all three Vanek plays is to leaven his bleak authorial message with class-based humor, and the director cleverly mines parallels in their plotting to emphasize it. Lane’s stammering, sweetly diffident Vanek can’t get anyone to believe, for instance, that he doesn’t drink. The proletarian brewmaster keeps refilling his beer mug as fast as he can surreptitiously empty it. The smug bourgeois top off his imported bourbon every time he sets down his glass. And the brooding intellectual offers brandy as if it were communion wine and might bring true believer and lapsed acolyte together again. Accepting each glass with a resignation that becomes increasingly understated, Lane is deftly politic—and very funny.

Design elements are spare and pristine, as they must be in a production designed to be exhibited at no cost to patrons. For most of its 12-year history, the left-leaning Potomac Theatre Project has insisted that its shows be available to everyone, including folks who normally can’t afford theater. As with all PTP’s productions, this one asks only for a donation at the door (though to ensure that you get a seat, you might want to pay the $4 advance reservation charge).

It’s worth mentioning that the conflict between society and artists has been fertile territory for PTP since the company’s inception. In its very first year, Romagnoli’s staging of Howard Barker’s No End of Blame trod this same ground, and the director has twice mounted that same playwright’s Scenes From an Execution, which looks at how social forces are brought to bear on art that means to make a statement. Both those evenings were revelatory and moving. So is this one. CP