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The Memorandum

TACT offers a disappointingly tepid production of Vaclav Havel's potentially chilling and hilarious play.

By New York City
Trent Dawson, Kate Levy, John Plumpis
 and Mark Alhadeff in The Memorandum
(© Stephen Kunken)
Trent Dawson, Kate Levy, John Plumpis
and Mark Alhadeff in The Memorandum
(© Stephen Kunken)
Vaclav Havel's The Memorandum, now being presented by TACT at the Beckett Theatre, depicts a man caught in a bureaucratic nightmare that's worthy of Kafka and a snare of office politics that brings to mind the world in which the comic strip character Dilbert toils.

While this is potentially chilling and hilarious material, director Jenn Thompson opts to emphasize neither the menace nor the comedy of the play, so the production merely inspires tepid appreciation rather than any real enjoyment.

The troubles for the play's hero, Josef Gross (James Prendergast), managing director within a generically defined company, begin when he arrives at work one morning to discover a memo on his desk that's written in seeming gibberish. It's his first encounter with Ptydepe, the new "official" language of organization, which is meant to streamline communications, with almost unpronounceable multisyllable words.

Gross soon learns that his officious and oily deputy, Jan Ballas (imbued with sleazy flair by Mark Alhadeff, who steals the show), has mandated this change and instituted a sweeping set of programs -- including classes in the building led by a hardnosed pedant (a droll turn from Joel Leffert) -- to ensure the switchover. It's all part of a meticulously planned scheme to seize his superior's position.

While Ballas ultimately achieves victory, he quickly discovers that his changes are met with confusion and before long, he has to turn to Gross for help to re-establish order and find another way to assume power. Havel's satire about the changes he was seeing within his country's government proves incisive, even at the remove of 42 years.

Prendergast, who stepped into the production at the last minute to replace an injured Simon Jones, delivers admirably. Trent Dawson has an amusing turn as the lothario scientist who's studying the impact of the language and Kate Levy' offers a sturdily vigorous portrayal of an exec who is trying too hard to be "one of the guys." Jeffrey C. Hawkins makes an impression as Ballas' unctuous toady, even though his character is silent for much of the production, and Nilanjana Rose brings genuine sweetness to her role as a naïve secretary, who represents the hope for the future of the play's world.


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