Play 'Slavs!' takes measure of culture's collapse

January 26, 1995|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Katherina Serafima Gleb is a security guard at an archive of dead brains. The brains belonged to Lenin and Stalin and Brezhnev, but others will be along soon: certainly Gorbachev, definitely Yeltsin and, come to think of it, why limit the place to Russians?

It's the dying of socialism we're watching in Tony Kushner's "Slavs!" now playing at Center Stage, but it's also the dying of the light, any light which gives itself a name and imagines itself guiding humanity through the dark.

The Russians can't feed themselves, so they reach for their bottles of vodka. They've run out of money, so they lease land to the Americans for toxic waste dumps, which damage the chromosomes of their children. The country's freezing, so stout babushkas sweep away falling snow while an ironically triumphant Volga Boat Song plays in the background. But more snow keeps falling and falling, so what's the point of all this sweeping?

(We think we're so much better? The mayor of Baltimore lately orders teams of sanitation workers to clean up the trash in the streets. But the people in too many neighborhoods think they're absolved of all responsibility for cleanliness, and the trash keeps falling and falling. So what's the point of all our sweeping? Of course, these people are not, strictly speaking, "Slavs." They are, strictly speaking, slobs.)

In "Slavs!" an aging Bolshevik roars at his fellow Politburo members:

"How are we to proceed without Theory? What have you to offer in its place? Market incentives? Watered-down stopgap makeshift capitalism? Pygmy children of a gigantic race! Change? Yes, we must change, only show me the Theory and I will be at the barricades. . . . Show me the words that will reorder the world, or else keep silent."

Then, this being theater that bursts with metaphor, he flops over like a mackerel.

"He's dead," says a stunned onlooker. "Oh, dear. He spoke too long. So many words. . . ."

In Washington two nights ago, Bill Clinton spoke for 81 minutes without coming up for air: So many words. He did this in search of an idea. Hearing none, his opponents spoke their own minds: So many more words. Hasn't anybody heard about quiet desperation?

Clinton was interrupted by applause 912 times, minimum. All those congressional people, clapping like seals: You wanted to throw them a dead mackerel. It's easy to clap for cliches. The president wants a campaign against teen-age pregnancy? Gosh, how courageous to fight all those in favor of teen pregnancy.

In "Slavs!" the desolate reach for vodka bottles. In America, we'll spend Sunday watching beer commercials interspersed by a Super Bowl game. In "Slavs!" the aging Bolsheviks mutter words blaming the Jews for everything. In America, we have the Jews, the blacks, the Hispanics for blaming, plus all those pushy immigrants trying to get some of that freedom we boast about until somebody actually asks for it. Now that they're asking for it a whole lot, the president calls for a crackdown on illegal immigration.

History's coming apart now, entire cultures at a time. That's what "Slavs!" tells us, and so do Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich and, for that matter, Kurt L. Schmoke. The speed of everything has picked up. The old social contracts are breaking down, and the old assumptions about governments having any answers.

"We have suffered and suffered and Paradise has not arrived," cries a pediatric oncologist in "Slavs!" She's praying. To God, to Lenin, who knows? "Shouldn't you come back and tell us what went wrong?" she asks.

Instead, there's a flash of light and a little girl enters. She sits there and says nothing. She's mute. The future has arrived, and it's finally run out of words to say. The little girl suffers from chromosome damage inherited from her elders who were exposed to radiation, but she's also the embodiment of a cancerous society.

"Slavs!" ends in heaven, but it's no worker's paradise. Snow is still falling, and old men are bundled in overcoats. The little mute girl shows up, only this time she's talking.

"Perhaps the principles were always wrong," she says, meaning equality and economic justice. "These are desirable but not realizable on earth."

Oh, no? Then what's left? "Slavs!" doesn't tell us, but its ambiguities feel like the stuff right outside the theater doors.

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