A Play About Nothing
FPCT’s new production brings a bit of Seinfeld to Prague
Published: February 19, 2014
Tales of Ordinary Madness
By Petr Zelenka
Through March 2 at the Fells Point Corner Theatre
Before the opening night performance of Petr Zelenka’s Tales of Ordinary Madness at the Fells Point Corner Theatre, director Barry Feinstein addressed the audience and suggested that they might think of the show as “Seinfeld in Prague.”
He had a point. Peter, the central character, is a 30-year-old single man living in an urban apartment, comically failing to win his girlfriend Jeanette back, or keep his parents at bay and his next-door neighbors quiet. His methods are a bit more absurd than Jerry Seinfeld’s ever were: advised by his best friend Midge, Peter tries to cut off a lock of Jeanette’s hair so he can cast a romantic potion, and when that doesn’t work, he plans to mail himself to her in a big box. But his efforts are just as fruitless and potentially just as funny as Seinfeld’s.
That potential isn’t always realized, however, because it’s very hard to find 10 skillful comic performers to fill out a large cast in a Baltimore community theater. Oddly enough, Feinstein has had better luck casting several of the supporting roles than he has in casting the three leads.
The production might have worked a lot better, for example, if Rick Lyon-Vaiden and Lisa Bryan, who play the next-door neighbors George and Alice, had been cast as Peter and Jeanette. Or if Michal Roxie Johnson, who plays Peter’s father’s mistress Sylvia, had played Jeanette. Or if Daniel Douek, who dominates every scene he’s in as Peter’s father, had been given more to do. It’s not that Tucker Foltz and Jessica Taylor, who play Peter and Jeanette, are awful, but they have an overweening earnestness that undercuts much of the humor.
Just as in Seinfeld, people are always barging into the protagonist’s apartment: Peter’s mother to insist that he take her blood pressure, his father to steal Peter’s phone, Jeanette and her new fiancé Alex (Phillip M. Walters) to insist that Peter pay for a new wig after the hair-cutting incident, George and Alice to ask if Peter will watch them having sex, Midge (Alexander Scally) to introduce his new girlfriend, a mannequin in a blue wig. They all insist that Peter would be better off if he had a woman in his life; he agrees, but his every attempt goes awry.
The playwright suggests that successful relationships are unrelated to intention. Midge meets Eva (Mimi Dang), for example, when he calls a classified ad for a cleaning woman. Alex meets Jeanette when he answers a phone ringing in a street-corner booth. Peter’s father meets Sylvia when he dials the wrong number.
The father is embarrassed that he was the voice-over narrator for Czechoslovakia’s Communist propaganda newsreels, but Sylvia loves to hear his rumbling baritone get all worked up about the opening of an imitation-leather factory. Douek’s voice is seductive, and his body language as an over-the-hill lover man is charmingly hilarious. Sylvia gets him to revive his old narrations as a kind of campy nostalgia at parties, and soon he is doing it at museums and on campuses. By embracing his old self, the father becomes a new man.
This raises the question of whether or not the play has a political subtext. We expect it to, because Czechoslovakia’s 1989 “Velvet Revolution” was led by the Czech playwright Vaclav Havel, who became the nation’s president. Zelenka was 22 in 1989, and Tales of Ordinary Madness became a big hit when it opened at Havel’s former theater, the Dejvicke Divadlo in Prague, and ran for eight years. So is this a political play?
I don’t think so. The primary reference to the old regime is the father’s old narration job, and it’s treated as a comic reminder of a stuffier time, much as anti-drug or hair-gel commercials from the ’50s might be in an American play. Of course, if you try hard enough—or get stoned enough—you can find a political allegory in anything, but, as written, this show is more concerned with the difficulty of making connections between friends, neighbors, family members and would-be lovers.
Another reference to the bad old days is made by George, who laments that back then dissident artists and activists were expected to be repressed by the government, and the more they failed the more their girlfriends loved them. Nowadays, he complains, those same women expect success, which is much harder to produce than failure.
When an artist sues in court today, he adds, it’s not for freedom from censorship but the payment of proper royalties. When he sabotages his own case with a dadaist prank, he gets no money and loses the girl altogether. This may not tell us much about politics, but it does tell us something about relationships and the comic ways they come together and fall apart.
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