In 1965, a new play by Vaclav Havel titled The Memorandum premiered at the Theatre on the Balustrade in Prague. It was a bitter satire of Soviet bureaucracy and how it dehumanizes people with endemic cravenness, stupidity, surveillance, and general crushing of the human spirit for the sake of "progress." But this sleek new production by Strawberry Theatre Workshop elegantly flips the critique, setting the play in an American office that is just as craven, stupid, and spirit-crushing—but, in this case, for the sake of profit.
The Memorandum opens with two office lackeys (Trick Danneker and Ian Fraser) scheming against their boss, Mr. Gross (Galen Joseph Osier). The lackeys tell Gross he'll be in big trouble with "upstairs" if he doesn't endorse their ridiculous and unnecessary new protocol—an invented language called Ptydepe (in this production, pronounced "puh-tee-a-deep") for intra-agency communications.
"It's a kind of experiment," Ballas (Danneker) explains. "It's meant to make official communications more precise and regularize the terminology." Gross is reluctant but receives a memo from "upstairs" in Ptydepe about his recent performance review—and, due to a series of procedural absurdities, can't get it translated. It's a quandary: Gross wants to get rid of Ptydepe, but not before he knows what "upstairs" is trying to tell him in Ptydepe.
Like Catch-22, The Memorandum is a tragedy about large-scale catastrophe (war in the former, totalitarianism in the latter) wrapped in a comedy about tiny human interactions. The office workers quibble over logbooks and rubber stamps, cut each other down with unctuous smiles, and obsess about what they'll have for lunch that day while their world slides into an increasingly dire situation they're either unable or unwilling to contemplate.
The play is good enough—in a Kafka's-kid-brother kind of way—but the performances range from very good to excellent. Danneker plays Ballas as a restless and amoral young colt, while Maya Sugarman loiters in the background as a shy but kind young secretary named Maria who, besides Gross, is the only sane person in the office. And Sarah Harlett does smilingly sinister work as Lear, a Ptydepe booster who gives the audience language lessons with slick PowerPoint presentations. (One imagines the 1965 version of The Memorandum using chalk and a blackboard.)
As Gross, Osier begins the play like Mr. Magoo and ends like Job—befuddled, then distraught, and eventually resigned. In Osier's rendering, the worse things get for Gross, the more person-like he becomes. His tragedy is actually a disenchantment, in the fairy tale sense of the word. Gross begins the play as a pleasant but cool functionary, but once he hits the bottom and realizes the full absurdity of his situation, the workaday spell is broken and he begins to engage with the people around him—even his tormentors—in a more open, humane way.
But the greatest achievement belongs to director Paul Morgan Stetler and sound designer Brendan Patrick Hogan, who add a whole new level of comedy to the play with a soundtrack of office noises: checked-out people listening to Radiolab on their headphones, the whooshings and pings of e-mails coming and going, the buzzing of texts in the characters' phones as they privately communicate with each other about what's actually being spoken out loud.
After The Memorandum had its American debut at the Public Theater in New York in 1968, the Soviet regime censored all of Havel's work. (He later became president of a liberated Czechoslovakia—success is the best revenge.) When I attended The Memorandum last week, there weren't many people in the audience. Under Soviet-style communism, smart productions had to worry about being banned; under American-style capitalism, they worry about being ignored.