LAUGH TIL YOU DONT: Dorota Maslowskas A Couple of Poor, Polish-Speaking Romanians
Until the end of this month, East River Commedia plays Dorota Maslowska’s A Couple of Poor, Polish-Speaking Romanians at Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side. For the writer’s New York stage debut, the director Paul Bargetto has taken up her raucous play, the three acts of which could seem high-octane farce if the social conclusions weren’t so galling. Maslowska began writing plays after creating a major platform with her prose. Her first novel hit big in 2002, and has been made into a feature film, with Maslowska playing its writer and the cop who books the crank-mad antihero near the end. Grove/Atlantic brought that book out as Snow White and Russian Red in 2005. Her second, The Queen’s Peacock, was published in 2005 and took the NIKE, Poland’s top literary prize. She followed A Couple with the canny, potent No Matter How Hard We Tried, which premiered in Berlin in 2009, and toured to Moscow’s Golden Mask Festival.
Maslowska wrote both plays at the invitation of TR Warszawa, whose Krum at BAM was awarded an Obie in 2008. A Couple was translated for the PEN World Voices Festival in 2007, with a staged reading at CUNY. Productions followed in English, at Soho Theatre in London, then at Trap Door Theatre in Chicago, where the Tribune critic wrote that the playwright “makes Chuck Palahniuk sound like E.M. Forster.” (Maslowska’s not out to win hearts, and a Polish friend who is a journalist likens her style to that of Jonathan Safran Foer, of whom the friend’s no fan.)
Paul Bargetto knew that A Couple was East River Commedia’s next production when he read it in a selection of new scripts he’d requested from Agata Grenda, the deputy director and theater specialist at the Polish Cultural Institute in New York. “It presents incredible staging challenges to the director and the ensemble, without any guidance,” Bargetto said on the phone, “the kind of challenge that makes me sit up. I see it as a reflection of our own mass popular consumerist culture, being reflected back in a brutal, very funny way.” During the Warsaw Pact era, people had to contend with what Bargetto termed “simple propaganda.” That changed with elections in 1989. “Suddenly you had this virgin market opened up to sophisticated consumerist culture, with all of its carefully wrought seduction.” What struck him in Maslowska’s unleashed dialogue “was the naïve way that these characters talk about marketing work. It woke me up to how deeply successful corporatism and consumerism have been here,” he said. “We’re all speaking the language; we bought it so long ago that we don’t even remember. It reminded me that, oh, right, this doesn’t mean anything. Yet we’ve based the sense of ourselves and our ethics around it.”
Caustic and ribald, the play flares up with a prologue of reports to the highway patrol, told by one driver who picked up the feral central duo, and others who didn’t dare. Blighty and Gina met at a party, and when we meet them they’re hitching this journey to the end of a night blasted with comic malevolence. Faking couplehood, they troll for roadside sympathy, milking her pregnancy and role-playing as needy foreigners. Their flayed rapport is all that appears real to them. That and the fact that Blighty’s about to miss morning call as Father Ted on the Warsaw set of a Catholic soap, and Gina may or may not have left her kid with her mom before striking out to party. All’s prey to Maslowska’s arch, harsh vigor, even when the actor of the pair holds out hope that they fucked. Not, Gina reminds him repeatedly. A glitzy motorist is left in a ditch—she’d been crocked on vodka and not easing up—then Gina declares herself “cold as a cold cunt” as they tramp towards the lone roadside house where the play will culminate.
Blighty’s a supreme motor mouth, but the fulcrum is Gina’s compulsion. “A single mother, she goes to this party and meets this famous actor who goes off on this mad journey with her,” Bargetto said. “Part of her motivation, I think, is to be saved, so they start playing that out. It’s twisted, but a real core of the play that makes it universal.” He spoke of “the obvious xenophobia that Maslowska is sticking her finger in, that of course plays very well here. The Driver, who’s such a major character at the beginning, he’s straight out of Glenn Beck—everything he says is completely paranoid but also extremely emotional.” The production intercuts one episode that the company’s shot of the serial Blighty stars in. “It’ll be on the TV in different scenes, for example when they go into the Tasty Grub, which is this horrible diner. Then of course they don’t recognize him,” Bargetto said, “which is very ironic. It seems that salvation and meaning only reside in the media. I think that’s part of what Dorota’s going at: In the value system, there’s some kind of vacuum that’s happened.”
Bargetto had directed a series of one-acts by Slawomir Mrozek after he finished grad school; these were also produced with the Polish Cultural Institute. Mrozek, who wrote exposés of control, lived largely outside Poland after 1960, yet his work was produced at home when censorship was making the writing of plays an especially unpromising profession. (A century earlier, Joseph Conrad’s dad had been exiled for his plays.) Two of the Mrozek pieces ran at La MaMa in 2003, then Philosopher Fox toured to Poland and returned for eight weeks in 2004 in Central Park, guerilla style. “We did it in front of the line for Shakespeare in the Park,” said Bargetto, “so they had to watch it.” The work resonated with the times, he said. “It was pretty fresh after 9/11; there was a lot of discussion about what kind of security apparatus we were going to set up in this country, when terrorism was this power that you didn’t really understand.”
As the company has worked on A Couple, Bargetto noticed links, “particularly in the dramaturgy of this play, which is very much like the Mrozek pieces in the machinery of the comedy. Great writing that understands comedy and how it has to be played, yet are the darkest, most brutal things you’ve ever seen. You go on laughing your head off and are set up for such a terrible, tragic finale.” Troy Lavallee played principal roles in the Mrozek one-acts, and takes on the part of Blighty, with Robin Singer as Gina. Bargetto invited the director Doris Mirescu to design costumes, sets and video for A Couple. Mirescu’s parents left Romania as political émigrés, and Bargetto knew she’d have “a taste for what this world is.” (Her adaptation of John Cassavetes’s film Husbands was at Under the Radar in 2010.) The English script is by Benjamin Paloff, who also translated Maslowska’s first novel. Bargetto called Paloff’s rendition “ferocious,” adding that he couldn’t imagine Maslowska was an easy writer to translate. Seagull Books brings it out later this year in their anthology of new Polish plays, Eat the Heart of Your Enemy.
In a phone interview, Paloff suggested that Maslowska has something like perfect pitch, but for language. He spoke of her “preternatural gift for hearing all kinds of language and then making them glue together. She does this in her fiction and she does this in her plays,” he said. “We giggle because there’s a mash-up, gray-album quality to hearing political sloganeering and street lingo in the same utterance. She marries them in a way that tells us a lot about what they do have in common.” This fusion extends to personalities, Paloff said. Her work doesn’t rely heavily on plot; instead, “there’s emotional play in language between these characters. That’s what makes them relatable,” he explained. “We can hear ourselves in them. She does it very whimsically.” Paloff also translated one of the writer’s essays for the anthology The Wall Inside My Head (Open Letter). “We have, in this country especially, an obsession with the Cold War still,” Paloff said. Among Maslowska topics in the piece is “this weird phenomenon of being a very young woman who comes to Western countries and is constantly being asked, ‘What are your recollections of communism?’ She was born in 1983; she doesn’t really have recollections of communism.” At a reading in Krakow from the manuscript of her second novel, he recalled sentiments that she’d prove “a one-hit phenom.” Paloff found The Queen’s Peackock “jaw-dropping,” and translated portions to show to Grove/Atlantic.
Maslowska’s second play, No Matter How Hard We Tried, has been directed by Grzegorz Jarzyna for TR Warszawa, and should by rights be the next TR piece brought to New York. At the Divine Comedy festival in Krakow in 2009, it was the jury’s all-but unanimous selection for the grand prize. I was on that jury, and the piece, which opens as a frolic of generational misunderstandings between Small Metal Girl on roller sneaks and her grandmother in a motorized wheelchair, wraps with a devastating conclusion that left me seated until the house had emptied. In Warsaw in December, I saw No Matter again and asked the person beside me for her assessment. “Deeply sad,” she said, adding that Maslowska is today’s most acute listener to her nation’s myriad voices. She seems intent on presenting them live, and is now collaborating on a new piece with the director Krystian Lupa, who was given the European Theatre Award in 2008, the year his Kalkwerk was at Lincoln Center Festival for his own New York debut.