Photos courtesy of Mitch Goldstrom.
Josef Gross (Bart Petty) is the managing director of a business. We know neither the company's name nor its line of business. He's given a memo -- the one we see projected on a screen as we walk in; on the same screen that later shook like bejeezus during the earthquake -- that's written in a gibberish language otherwise known as "Ptydepe." Trying to get the memo translated, he runs head first into wall of bureaucratic clusterfuck.
The Memorandum, written by Vaclav Havel and directed by Jen Bloom for Santa Monica Rep, shows, with Kafkaesque humor, how a new business language (as well as any new, wide scale initiative) that claims to be greatest and latest is anything but. It's neither greatest because it's randomly imposed (here, the buck stops nowhere); it requires too much buy-in and re-education; and it's counterintuitive -- humans are anything but rational. Nor is it latest. It gets replaced at the end by "Chorikor," another equally gibberish language. And so the cycle continues.
In the story it tells and the ideas it broaches, Havel's script is entertaining and intelligent. Bloom makes it blossom. Plot-wise it reads like something that Jim Halpert would pull on Dwight Schrute in The Office sitcom. The cast hit all the right notes in the new venture's exasperation, self-righteousness, and unaccountability. They nicely capture the degree to which each person buys or doesn't buy in to the new language. Petty's Gross nails the haplessness of being a humanist in a world of inhuman forces while his deputy Jan Ballas (Barbara Urich) shows the gung-ho enthusiasm of someone who tries to capitalize on the introduction of the new language for personal gain.
The humor is based on the tangles of corporate bureaucracy, including blindly obeyed harebrained schemes to which no one claims ownership and an avalanche of paperwork and procedures. It doesn't help that every few minutes there's a sanctioned and much anticipated food break.
The funniest scenes in the production are the language lessons. In these we learn that a simple word like "boo" can, depending on the speaker and listener's position on the company's pecking order, can be described by numerous words. Of course, the number of words for essentially the same thing is staggering; the longest words resemble the number of letters in the names of Welsh towns.
While the production's funny parts are outrageously so, its ideas, if taken to their logical extremes, are 1984 scary. No surprise there. Havel wasn't just a playwright and a mentor of Tom Stoppard; he was also the first president of the Czech Republic in the early post-Cold War era. In that context, the production can be viewed as bold and inflammatory, if not seditious. Nowadays it should serve as a cautionary tale.
Perhaps it's this water cooler humor that makes us forget the dystopias of the otherwise progress-promising 20th century -isms of Communism, Socialism, and Nazism. Substitute the gelatin-brained viewers of reality TV for the proletariat and you can easily see how mobs could get roped in to something undesirable before they knew what hit them. We laugh until, too late perhaps, we realize that the production presents an indictment of anything that promises heaven on earth, be it social, economic, political, religious or, especially now, technological.
Performances are 7:30pm, Friday through Sunday. The production runs until April 20. Tickets are $20-$30. The Miles Memorial Playhouse is located at 1130 Lincoln Boulevard, Santa Monica, CA 90403. For more information call (213) 268-1454 or visit http://www.santamonicarep.org/SantaMonicaRep/Home.html.