Wisdom Bridge Theatre

I didn’t leave my seat during intermission for Janusz Glowacki’s Hunting Cockroaches. It’s a good thing, too, because I might not have had a seat when I got back. A man came over and said I was sitting in his. He was tall, young, nicely dressed, and had what I took to be a Polish accent. There was a thin blond woman with him, but he did all the talking. I showed him my ticket. He showed me his. They were definitely imprinted with the same seat numbers. But mine was for Hunting Cockroaches at the Wisdom Bridge Theatre–whereas, despite his strategically placed thumb, it was easy to see that his was for a pops concert at Orchestra Hall. We didn’t argue. Sticking to his cover story, he said, “They must have double-ticketed us,” and moved on to the next row, where he found unoccupied seats for the woman and himself and stayed through the second act.

I didn’t report him to the usher. I didn’t confront him about the tickets. He wasn’t bothering anybody, and it seemed only right that he should get a look at Cockroaches, inasmuch as I thought he and the blond woman might have something in common with Glowacki’s characters–a couple of Polish emigres trying to squeeze by in a major American city.

And besides, there was a sort of ludicrous charm to the tall man’s scam. It was so transparent. So completely founded on wishful thinking–as if he truly believed that by putting his thumb over everything but the seat number on his ticket he was going to convince me that I was in the wrong spot. He wasn’t conning me. He was putting himself at my mercy.

Glowacki would’ve loved it. Cockroaches is full of just such scams. Transparent despite its cynical voice, wishful despite its bravado, it gains the upper hand by putting itself at your mercy. Which, I suppose, is why any emigre must do.

The man in Cockroaches isn’t tall and the woman isn’t blond. As impersonated by Christopher Pieczynski and Kristine Thatcher, he’s fairly short and she’s black-haired. And both of them are exhausted. They can’t sleep. Recently arrived from Poland, where he was a successful writer and she was a famous actress, they haven’t had any real rest for weeks. Instead they bounce around their crummy, roach-infested studio apartment in lower Manhattan, half-crazed–bantering with each other, entertaining imaginary guests, and, of course, hunting cockroaches.

They’re, in short, a little anxious. Jan, the writer, can’t bring himself to write. Anka, the actress, can’t get work because of her accent. Even her job playing a peasant at the Museum of Immigration fell through. The two of them are completely overwhelmed by what they’ve got themselves into, and all their blocked creative energy goes, by turns, toward reassuring and scaring the hell out of themselves.

They conjure all sorts of bogeymen up from under the bed. An immigration officer wants to know whether they came to America with the intention of assassinating the president. A bum discourses on the advantages of living in the park. Two Polish plainclothesmen show up for tea. A couple of rich American dilettantes throw crumbs. A government censor cajoles Jan with food coupons and glasnost.

In between conjurings, Jan and Anka swap cures for insomnia, bicker over the baby question, recount the attack of the hissing pigeon, and construct paranoid theories about that elite 10 percent of New Yorkers who actually sleep at night.

All this is done in a vaudeville rhythm: Jan and Anka as Burns and Allen with accents–taking turns as second banana, feeding each other the straight lines for their respective riffs, their conversation often devolving into a play of short questions (“What?” “Why is that?” “And then what happened?”) against long anecdotes.

The George-and-Gracie routines are their way of holding a thumb over the ticket. Anka and Jan are running a scam on New York–and on themselves as well–trying, through fantasy and humor, to get a handle on their situation. To cope with their absolute lack of practical resources. Their absolute foreignness.

And Glowacki’s, as well. An emigre himself since the declaration of martial law in Poland in 1981, Glowacki seems determined to overwhelm his new, English-speaking audience with a barrage of snappy lines. And sure enough, it’s an impressive performance: the man’s acid and funny. But his strategy betrays him before long. The patter becomes obtrusive. It takes on the character of a nervous tic. Or an evasion. Like the tall man’s scam, it fails to convince.

Still, Glowacki’s by no means the only one to blame for this failure. Read Cockroaches and you’ll come across some genuinely sinister, sad, even tragic moments. But those moments never get their proper weight in this jolly, double-time production directed by Doug Finlayson. It’s as if Finlayson got a comic momentum going and didn’t dare slow it down or vary it for fear of losing it entirely. Passages like Anka’s strange, resonant memory of dragging her drunken father down Karl Marx Street slip by much too quickly, like trees through the window of a moving train.

And of course you can’t stop a moving train. But even so, Kristine Thatcher makes a solid try. Her offhand, sly, cracked Anka communicates something of the inner tension of an artist who’s not only out of work but out of context. Her entire physical being suggests her displacement, as she only half voluntarily turns some minor domestic shufflings into stage business.

Christopher Pieczynski never achieves a similar depth as Jan. Perhaps because he’s playing a writer–whose alienation naturally expresses itself verbally rather than physically–Pieczynski’s much more a prisoner of Glowacki’s patter.

John Mohrlein would qualify as a prisoner, too, if he hadn’t made his cell so opulent. Mohrlein brings his usual, luxurious enthusiasm to the task of playing various apparitions. Which makes him a nice foil for the more astringent Richard Henzel, whose Polish plainclothesman is the one genuinely menacing figure in a production that could use lots more menace.

Joan Lazzerini’s all wrong, making earnest efforts to be zany in her two forays from underneath Jan and Anka’s bed. The bed itself, though, is perfectly right–just like the rest of Linda Buchanan’s tawdry/whimsical set.

Hunting Cockroaches has its omissions, its weaknesses, and its false moves. But it’s basically a sharp piece of satire that succeeds very much like my tall friend with the pops concert tickets did. I mean, the guy’s scam may not have won him my seat–but he at least got to see the show.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard.