Leopold Nettles (Troy Dunn) is a philosopher in an un-identified country (but we can be pretty sure is Soviet Czechoslovakia), waiting to be arrested by the Secret Police. When the lights come up, we see him sitting on the sofa in his apartment, sitting and staring at the door in quiet terror. He reacts at to the slightest sound--sounds we in fact do not hear. Approaches timidly the door to stare through the peephole. Seeing nothing, he retreats again to the sofa.
He does the same thing again. And again.
That should be dull, but instead becomes nerve-wracking for us, the audience. So begins Largo Desolato by former Czech president and playwright Vaclav Havel, translated by Tom Stoppard, directed by Frederique Michel. Written after Havel himself emerged from prison, the play proves a harrowing portrait of slow psychological torture, as an essentially good (albeit very flawed) man of deep thoughts and lofty ambitions is whittled away before our eyes.
Part of what makes the whole thing so compelling are all the other around Leopold, all of whom exert pressure, all of whom share the same knowledge of his impending fate. A few, such as his girlfriend or maybe wife Suzana (Emily Kellis) --the text does not make it clear--offer simple, straightforward support. He finds little comfort there, but then who can blame them for also withdrawing at least a bit? His friend Edward (Gifford Irving) is there, checks up on him, is friendly--and then takes Suzana out to the ballet. We soon learn Leopold drinks too much, takes drugs, cheats on his girlfriend with a friend of hers Lucy (Angela Beyer) while refusing to show her any public affection or simply say the words "I love you" without going into a long speech about how he doesn't mean what she does by that word. He tries to be polite, but that crumbles soon enough.
Remember that fact. Because certain phrases repeat themselves over and over throughout. He speaks of love as if quoting a specific essay. When he talks about what he fears he is becoming, he repeats Bertram's paragraphs--more than once.
When a Marguarite (Melissa DuBois), a young student, comes to see Leopold out of raw fandom, she likewise repeats word for word what Lucy said about her feelings and hopes in loving Leopold.
Compelling it is, and more than a little mysterious. And as he goes through the motions of his routine of subtle, grinding terror, wearing nothing but pajamas and a bathrobe, drinking more and more rum, popping more and more pills (in lots of vivid colors), a disturbing question arises. How much of what we're seeing is real?
More importantly, does it matter? Leopold's crisis itself remains real. If in fact much of what we see happens to be his own mind, that implies a piercing amount of self doubt as well as self-delusion. If the repetitions are merely style, then we get the same effect in many ways--the chipping away of himself under pressure. Just like his constant, terrified vigil of watching and listening to his own apartment door.
Little wonder he'd rather be taken away to "that place" than live like this.
As ever City Garage surprises and haunts. Every cast member of Largo Desolato is a veteran of the company now, and deliver their performances with power as well as precision. The direction continues to use the (seemingly) simple presence of being in the same room with another human being to vast effect. The result feels raw, and terribly honest.
Largo Desolato plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays (pay what you can at the door) at 3pm until March 1, 2020 at the City Garage, Bergamot, Building T1, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404.