Kathryn Meisle and David Strathairn in Leaving
(Photo courtesy Wilma Theater)
Kathryn Meisle and David Strathairn in Leaving
(Photo courtesy Wilma Theater)
Saying that an author "inserts himself into the play" is usually a criticism. But in Leaving, Václav Havel's first play in 20 years and now getting its U.S. premiere at Philadelphia's Wilma Theatre, authorial intrusions make the play.

It doesn't hurt that Academy Award winner F. Murray Abraham is the voice of these comments, which range from mischievous observations on his own writing as it appears to directions to the cast not to overact. The device not only brilliantly acknowledges Havel's presence in a play about a high official leaving office, but it's a wonderfully funny one, as well -- especially for theater people, who will hear in it a cross between a director on the "god-mike" and their own inner monologues.

Leaving mixes elements of the absurd for which Havel is known for with a "real" situation, all the while using references to King Lear, The Cherry Orchard, and Endgame. (In fact, the program states that the play is inspired by them, right under the time and place.) While on one level, the work is a satire about politics, media and celebrity, it's also a portrait of a man dealing with change, aging and letting go, and director Jiri Zizka brings out the story's poignancy, setting the play's farcical elements in relief.

Chancellor Vílem Rieger (David Strathairn), is the locus for the melancholy, as he learns while giving an interview to a tabloid that he has to leave the government-owned villa he's been in for years. That means figuring out where to go with his "long-term companion," bossy, vain Irena (Kathryn Meisle, serving up a perfect blend of vulnerabilty and ego), daughter Zuzana (Victoria Frings), who sits on a swing talking on her cellphone and tapping on her laptop, Grandma (Janis Dardaris), and assorted secretaries and servants, including deaf old Oswald (Geddeth Smith). As 15 people come in and out, we see that not only Rieger's garden, but also his life, is seriously cluttered.

Daughter Vlasta (Jennifer R. Morris, in severe riding gear) offers to take Daddy in, then recants, while insisting he sign over property. There's also graduate student Bea (Mary McCool), who worships Rieger, then makes out with him. Meanwhile, Patrick Klein (Trevor Long), the new Prime Minister, steals Rieger's slogans about government serving the people, while inverting all of his policies -- and also appropriating one of Rieger's secretaries, the obsequious Victor (Luigi Sottile).

There are literally hundreds of entrances and exits, and designer Klara Zieglerova highlights this with a set full of doors all over walls covered with grass. The costumes by Vasilija Živanic wink at Czech and American images: Irena looks suspiciously like Havel's second wife Dagmar crossed with Nancy Reagan; Grandma looks like a storybook Czech babicka, complete with shawl and apron; and Klein looks like Rudy Giuliani-turned-mafioso in pin-striped suit and slicked hair.

Strathairn, with his hangdog expression and gentle delivery, makes us care for Rieger, even though his weakness with women reflects his weakness in the face of brute strength. When he talks about his cherry orchard, it's both hilarious and pathetic.

Although the energy flags a bit towards the end of Act One, the show's humor does not suffer. The mad scene in the storm raises chuckles, and the surprise of actual rain onstage has beauty and terror -- as does the play, which somehow manages to mix Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Beckett with Havel's own kind, but sharp eye on humanity.