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- WINNER, 1989 L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award:
Playwriting (Larry Shue)
Featured Performance (Nancy Lenehan)

by Dan Sullivan, Times Theater Critic

Prague, 1974. Four people sitting around a kitchen table at midnight. Yes, it is true, says the woman. She and her husband probably are "more afraid than necessary." But then they have seen what happened to those who were less afraid than necessary.

More coffee?

It's a scene from Larry Shue's "Wenceslas Square" at the Matrix Theatre, the best show at this address since "The Common Pursuit." In a season of phantoms and fiddlers, here's a quietly spoken play whose echoes can still be felt the next morning.

The biggest echo is that of the recent events in Tian An Men Square. What happens to artists and intellectuals when they have been released into the light, and then are yanked back into the dark? "Believe me," somebody says, "it's not that dramatic."

Which somehow makes Shue's play all the more telling. Its second echo is that of recent events in Washington. If the light ever went out for American artists, it wouldn't be a sudden power cut, but a long slow fade.-First a legislative hearing, then a museum cancellation. . . . One would complain, of course. But one must live.

And one might live quite well. One might end up with a summer place in the country. This would involve a certain amount of compromise, but mature people know when to bend with "the situation." And not just behind the Iron Curtain.

But that is the scene of Shue's play. It does not bring us any new intellectual information. Everybody knows that artists and writers in Czechoslovakia can't speak their minds. We are reminded of it every time the government finds a new reason to throw Vaclav Havel in jail.

But what does it feel like to live in such a country? The thing that makes "Wenceslas Square" so effective—besides director Lee Shallat's superb cast—is that it doesn't pretend to have any inside knowledge of this.

It is content to convey the things that a visitor might notice over a week's stay—the situation of Shue's hero, an American professor who has come to see what happened to the rebellious Czech theater after the false promise of 1968's "Prague Spring."

Everything seems much the same. But there is a slight pause when an actor is asked if he is still performing with so-and-so. There's a meaningful curl of the lip when a toast is raised to national television. There's a warning inflection to phrases like "the situation" or "it was political," as if to say: Don't let's pursue this.

Little things, but they register. And it's clear that they're exquisitely painful to the very civilized people who are trying to make light of them, or ignore them. Shue's play—a complete surprise after his slam-bang farces, "The Nerd" and "The Foreigner"—isn't about the secret police breaking down the door. But, if drama means inner conflict, it's thick with it.

Thick, but not heavy. One couldn't call this play a comedy, but its characters are witty people who try to look on the bright side of things, often with considerable success. There is, for example, the eternal comedy of trying to understand another's language—and the wonderful rush when your pidgin English breaks through to the other party's less-than-pidgin Czech.

Adam Arkin has some lovely moments here, and he's devastating when he raises that toast to television. James Sloyan and Richard Murphy are also first-rate as the American professor and his student photographer, both innocents from the land where the only problems are personal ones.

But the performance of record-three performances, actually—is that of Nancy Lenehan. Lenehan embodies a cautious young translator, a ferocious old translator and a sophisticated arts administrator. There isn't anything about any one of these women that the actress fails to tell us, while letting us

The rest of the review is lost

Read an L.A. Times article about Lee Shallat's direction of Wenceslas Square

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