Strawdog Theatre Company

When everything can be rationally explained, even evil becomes merely a matter of logic–and thus all the more thinkable and doable. This disturbing discovery haunts Temptation, a dramatically drab but intellectually invigorating political parable by Vaclav Havel.

The play, Havel’s most recent work, inevitably takes on the luster of its author, the dissident Czech playwright who now presides over the state that imprisoned him. Written shortly after his release from jail in 1985, Temptation reveals its origins. Like Largo Desolato, also from this period, it’s obsessed with the seductive dangers of free thought; it also wants to show how prison bars distort forever any “rational” view of the world.

Incarceration, or the fear of it, shadows setting and story; ostensibly free, Havel’s absurdist creations turn out to be their own worst jailers. Reworking the Faust legend, Temptation shows us a scientist who foolishly believes that irrationality and the modern state are mutually opposed: he tries to explain away the irrational in what Havel has called “a grand self-delusion of the human spirit.”

Havel’s metaphorical setting is the Institute, “a lighthouse of truthful knowledge.” It’s one of those deviously purposeless, Kafkaesque bureaucracies that Czech writers can invent in their sleep (like the one Havel imagined earlier in The Memorandum). But this Institute has a special mission: although, as Havel has written elsewhere, “the civilization of the new age has robbed old myths of their authority,” at the Institute the state itself hypocritically appropriates the irrational for its own ends.

Because it believes its persecutions are disinterested and hygienic, the Institute is capable of any trespass. Its goal is to “scientifically” examine and then extinguish society’s “alarming manifestations of irrational attitudes and tendencies.” Of course the Institute contains its own not-so-hidden peculiarities, like bisexuality and the practice of bondage, recreations that are clearly not meant for the masses.

But they’re not enough of a distraction for one researcher. Dr. Foustka, the Institute’s most ambitious investigator, wants to know the irrational firsthand. Dazzled by the illusion of his own scientific objectivity, Foustka embarks on some “private studies”–he strikes up a bargain with Fistula, a lisping, crippled dwarf with smelly feet and few manners but an inside track on the supernatural. Fistula will teach Foustka black magic, “as a basis for your scientific studies,” while Foustka’s research will offer Fistula a cover for his dangerously mystical activities. With Fistula as a catalyst for his courage, Foustka finds himself able to impress and attract a fellow worker, a secretary. He wins her heart by telling her how our moral impulses give order to the universe, but the play tantalizingly suggests that his seductive arguments are the devil’s own promptings.

Delighted with his new, confident eloquence and assuming it’s his own achievement, Foustka abandons any pretense of detachment; he gives in to the intoxication of responding to unanalyzed impulse, a delicious alternative to what Havel has termed elsewhere “cold, descriptive Cartesian reason.” When the other scientists condemn the zeal of his occult explorations, Foustka cannily replies that he only pretends to practice what he in fact detests.

What undoes him is his inability to commit himself fully to either side. He certainly cannot go further and reach what Havel calls “the absolute horizon,” that valiant point at which morality and action meet. In the final scene, Foustka is unmasked as an enemy of the state; the Institute’s director tells him, “You can’t play both ends against the middle and get away with it.”

Unfortunately, Havel makes us sit through two heavily upholstered acts before the surprise ending unleashes its obvious ironies about the corruptibility of truth seekers. The playwright also throws in a disposable subplot in which Foustka’s mistress rejects him for fingering her as an informant. Why wouldn’t she?

Even the comparatively dramatic scenes–the psychological sparring matches between Foustka and Fistula–get mired in the characters’ overly intricate analyses of each other’s intentions and contradictions. The play’s tensions come out of the clash of ideas rather than of characters; it’s so dryly cerebral as well as padded that it never comes to life.

Strawdog Theatre Company gives Temptation its midwest premiere in a production that persuasively demonstrates how Foustka’s self-deception and the Institute’s collective lies feed on each other. But it seldom engages us in the play’s polemics. Lawrence Novikoff’s earnestly slow staging only underlines Havel’s unwillingness to build scenes or set up confrontations–he just springs them instead. But Novikoff clearly respects and contrasts cleanly Havel’s well-spun arguments.

Dan Montgomery’s self-effacing Fistula is insidiously logical as he weaves his web; he makes a fine foil to Paul Engelhardt’s awkward and opportunistic Foustka. Wily and quirky, Montgomery is easily the subtlest actor on this stage. The restraint pays off: Fistula, set against these institutional sycophants, seems weirdly wholesome.

George Czarnecki depicts the Institute’s fulminating director with contagious gusto, pontificating about the blessings of conformity as if he’d just invented propaganda. As Foustka’s mistress, Shira Piven snaps her lines as deftly as she wields a whip against Foustka. Eugenia Ives fairly corners the winsome market as the trusting secretary whom Foustka seduces and abandons. The rest of the ensemble are bilious caricatures from Czechoslovakia’s cartoon show, who play the Institute’s ass kissers and parasites with artful subversion.

They do such a good job it’s enough to make you sympathize with Havel–who no doubt finds himself now in the most forbidding prison of all.