With Milos Forman at the podium and Lou Reed in the audience, Czech Center New York's celebration of Vaclav Havel's 60th birthday (held at the Public Theatre Oct. 4) had a patina of hipness not usually associated with such gatherings.
Public Theatre Artistic Director, George C. Wolfe remarked how wonderful it is that "an artist is a leader in the world. More artists should be world leaders!"
Wolfe went on to remind the audience of The Public's longtime association with Havel, a connection elaborated upon by Joseph Papp's widow, Gail. She noted that the Public produced four plays by Havel in 1968 -- the theatre's first year -- following stagings of Hair and Hamlet. Havel was only 30 then, and when his plays won an Obie, then-artistic director Joseph Papp couldn't give him his award because Havel was in jail. It wasn't until 1984, when the Papp came to Prague and visited Havel (then under house arrest), that the president-to-be got his Off-Broadway award.
Gail Merrifield Papp closed her remarks by remembering how tremendously moved she and her dying husband were when Havel called them in 1991.
The mood turned more celebratory when Donna Hanover, wife of Mayor Giuliani and star of Milos Forman's next film, remembered her Czech-speaking father, and "the clipped, direct approach" of Czech speech and character. The evening's most oddly charming pairing were Milos Forman and actress Mia Farrow, he jokingly forcing her to read a speech Havel had sent over -- in Czech.
In the speech, Havel thanked all the participants but made clear he thought of the personal occasion in very low-key terms: "it is a date like any other," wrote the president as he cryptically alluded to events in the future that would be more important than a mere birthday.
Before the presentation of Havel's one-act, Audience, translator Jan Novak, a longtime friend of the dramatist, recounted anecdotes of his trip to Prague that were as strange and absurd as any events in a Havel play. Novak's speech was, quite literally, a shaggy dog story, as he remembered seeing a woman drink from a milk bottle she'd just given to her pooch. "That's when I thought to myself, `these people will never be defeated.'"
The first part of the Havel celebration (to be followed by a photographic exhibition and street party) concluded with No Curtain Theatre's staging of Audience, about a playwright and his drunken boss at a brewery. Dick Stilwell and Jiri Fisher (who also directed), comprised the cast of the dark, satirical comedy.
In his review for This Month ON STAGE magazine (Nov. 1996), critic David Solomon wrote of Audience, "One privilege of Havel's being head of state was not having to sit through [Jiri] Fisher's aimless production of his play . . . The lifted beer steins, the trips to the bathroom, the Brewmaster's amnesic returns to the same topics of conversation -- need a sense of comic exaggeration (and menace) to build tension. Havel's nightmarish sketch, about a shy dramatist and the drunken boss who wants him to snitch on himself to an unnamed "they," needs the undercurrent of something sad and terrible, or at least a claustrophobic, Nicky Silver-style paranoia. Here we simply see shy Vanek (Fisher) acting bemused around a pathetic but harmless souse."
-- By David Lefkowitz