The Waltz Invention

Strawdog Theatre Company

By Adam Langer

Strawdog Theatre’s program for Vladimir Nabokov’s The Waltz Invention includes a brief essay by the writer that should be taken as scripture by all theater companies in town. “It is high time,” Nabokov writes, “for playwrights to forget the notions that they must please the audience and that this audience is a collection of half-wits. The only audience that a playwright must imagine is the ideal one, that is, himself. All the rest pertains to the box-office, not to dramatic art.” Nabokov then imagines a conversation with a cigar-puffing theater producer who scoffs at him, demanding, “How can you expect plays based on some new technique which will make them unintelligible to the general public, plays not only parting from tradition, but flaunting their disregard for the wits of the audience…to be produced by any big theatre company?”

“Well, I don’t,” Nabokov responds soberly. “And this too is the tragedy of tragedy.”

Alas, few theaters have the nerve to take Nabokov’s words to heart, to take risks–box office be damned–and embrace innovation. Practically every company in town, from the esteemed Steppenwolf to the fledgling troupes renting space for $50 in the basement of O Bar, seems to prize commercial over artistic success; the result is a stream of productions loaded with talent but devoid of originality, ambition, and imagination. But I’ve got news: I have no interest in seeing the best possible revival of The Man Who Came to Dinner. Cast Golda Meir and Nastassia Kinski as the Pigeon sisters, and you’d still have trouble getting me off the couch to see The Odd Couple. Above all, theater should be about subverting or surpassing expectations, not meeting them. And if that seems too naive or idealistic a goal, I wish you an eternity of lavish revivals of The Glass Menagerie and Bleacher Bums.

One thing I have to say for the Strawdog Theatre Company, now in their tenth year: though I’ve yet to see a perfect production there, I’ve always been challenged by their work. From Back Bog Beast Bait in 1990 to Imagine Drowning this season, Strawdog consistently chooses intelligent plays rather than aiming for box-office success. To their eminent list one may now add this staging of Nabokov’s quirkily prescient 1938 satire. A flawed but inspiring and creative production like Defiant Theatre’s The Skriker, European Rep’s Stars in the Morning Sky, and A Red Orchid Theatre’s The Killer, it has so much going for it that one is tempted to overlook its faults–and, to be honest, there are quite a few–and simply salute the company for keeping theater alive and kicking in Chicago.

Certainly director Nic Dimond deserves some sort of award for excavating this obscure early work by Nabokov, best known as a novelist, from the University of Washington library. According to Strawdog, The Waltz Invention has been produced only three times, and not since 1969. A cautionary comedy about a madman with a doomsday device, The Waltz Invention anticipates the darkly comic vision of The Mouse That Roared and Dr. Strangelove; the lunacy here, at its best, suggests S.J. Perelman.

The inventor is one Salvator Waltz, a wild-eyed, power-drunk creature who offers his services to the minister of war of an unnamed country, demonstrating his device’s destructive power by blowing up the mountain outside the war ministry window. As Waltz is played by the frenetic, somersaulting Jim Slonina, he’s no mere mad scientist–he’s a cackling screwball bent on world domination. Wowing the stammering minister with his abilities and allying himself with a mysterious opportunist named Trance (Jo Ann Oliver), Waltz proceeds to take control of the hapless defense department and eventually overthrows the president. One is never quite certain, however, whether Waltz is hugely powerful or all this is merely a figment of his or someone else’s imagination.

Though Nabokov’s three-act begins as a somewhat long-winded satire mocking the stupidity of bureaucrats and military men, it soon spirals into a grotesque Marx Brothers fever dream. When Waltz waltzes into the war room, he encounters a menagerie of humpbacked, mumbling, stumbling, pop-eyed lunatics who make Snow White’s seven dwarfs look like ordinary, well-adjusted citizens. Controlling the country’s destiny are the myopic, guffawing General Bump, the mincing General Rump, the doodling General Dump, the gregarious General Gump, as well as generals Mump, Hump, Stump, Lump, two puppets, and the offstage president. As the second act draws to a close, with newly instated leader Waltz tumbling in and out of a dreamworld and promising the defense department peace and harmony through mass destruction, the play promises an insanely unpredictable conclusion.

But rather than follow up on the promise of this giddy madness, Nabokov returns in the third act to the talkiness of the first, as Waltz becomes bored with world domination and seeks escape. Though there are jarringly demented moments–including a drag song and dance in which the masked Waltz searches for his ideal mate, intending to lose his virginity–they feel more forced than organic, and the surprise ending is unsatisfyingly obvious. Nevertheless, Nabokov’s sharp wit and twisted imagination help compensate for all the talk, and the fact that he was writing seven years before Hiroshima and Nagasaki gives this satire the eerie ring of Orwellian clairvoyance.

Surprisingly, Strawdog’s production is most effective during the play’s most difficult moments. The ridiculous war room scene allows Dimond to choreograph no end of hilarious, highly precise stage business. And Waltz’s search for the ideal woman proceeds with the eye-popping imagery and illogic of a dream.

The trouble is the more conventional material. When the actors aren’t performing absurd dance numbers during scene changes or Slonina isn’t being thrown up in the air like Tai Babilonia, the dialogue often has a flat, declamatory feel, as if the actors were overcompensating for a poor translation (Nabokov wrote the play in English, by the way). Bart Petty as the minister of war is not only too young for the role (his line “Do not deceive an old man” should probably have been cut), he tries too hard to wring laughs from his lines. Clenching his fists, baring his teeth, and huffing and puffing like a cross between an institutionalized Jack Nicholson and a wild and crazy Dick Shawn, Petty never fully embodies his role. Ditto for Mike Dailey, whose mugging as the minister’s underling, the colonel, undercuts the humor inherent in the script, and Oliver, who delivers most of Trance’s lines with a brash but phony self-assurance that suggests she’s about to go into a tap dance number.

Perhaps Dimond was so successful at orchestrating Nabokov’s crazed passages that he felt he had to graft the same over-the-top style onto the rest of the material. But the resulting earsplitting rants and overplayed exchanges sometimes sabotage moments that would have benefited from some subtlety. These faults are by no means minor. And there are more than a few moments, particularly in the first and third acts, when one will likely be casting more glances at one’s watch than the stage.

But theater shouldn’t be measured only by its success. When a company like Strawdog is striving for a heady, exhilarating comedy with social, literary, intellectual, and entertainment value, I’ll gladly sit through a few dull patches and mediocre performances. It’s better than Les Miz–which I hear is returning to town, after a very short absence.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still.