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Entertainment & Arts

Review: City Garage opens a window to life behind the Iron Curtain in ‘Largo Desolato’

A dissident writer (Troy Dunn, center) is menaced by government thugs (Aaron Bray, left, and Anthony Sannazzaro) in the Václav Havel play “Largo Desolato” at City Garage.
A dissident writer (Troy Dunn, center) is menaced by government thugs (Aaron Bray, left, and Anthony Sannazzaro) in the Václav Havel play “Largo Desolato” at City Garage.
(Paul M. Rubenstein)

Amid the factual free-fall of an Orwellian police state, taking a stand for truth may not be the heroic act it’s cracked up to be.

Just ask professor Leopold Nettles, the all-too-flawed dissident writer in Václav Havel’s “Largo Desolato.” An eerie, atmospheric staging at City Garage in Santa Monica revisits Havel’s absurdist 1986 portrait of Iron Curtain paranoia.

Before becoming Czechoslovakia’s first president following the collapse of Soviet-era communism, Havel was an underground playwright who spent time in prison for his subversive views. That trauma colors the pervasive claustrophobic dread in which agitated Leopold (Troy Dunn) circles his apartment, expecting at any moment to be arrested by the secret police.

Far from a profile in courage, Dunn’s hapless Leopold unravels under mounting pressure from all sides. Idolized by the left, he’s prodded to spearhead a protest movement by a pair of fervent factory workers (Aaron Bray and Anthony Sannazzaro). The same actors later appear as menacing government thugs who want him to publicly disavow his work — a neat bit of double-casting that reinforces the symmetry of Leopold’s caught-in-the-middle plight.

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On a more personal front, commitment-phobic Leopold is unable to return the offer of intimacy extended by his lover, Lucy. Played with depth and nuance by Angela Beyer, Lucy represents Leopold’s only emotionally authentic option in the play’s absurdist landscape. Other characters (Emily Asher Kellis, Gifford Irvine, Trace Taylor and Marissa DuBois) blatantly use him for their own ends.

The play’s English translation is by Havel’s fellow expat Tom Stoppard (who has labeled himself a “bounced Czech”). Stoppard respectfully curbs his own penchant for sparkling wit, remaining faithful to the play’s deliberately fractured, matter-of-fact banality of oppression.

The material is well suited to the stylish City Garage aesthetic, as director Frédérique Michel and designer Charles A. Duncombe lean into Havel’s extensive use of repetition to evoke a visceral sense of Leopold’s paralysis. Calibrate your pacing expectations accordingly.

The only real narrative arc is in Leopold’s unnerving recognition that in an authoritarian state, the only thing worse than being a perceived threat is to become irrelevant.

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'Largo Desolato'
Where: City Garage, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave. Building T1, Santa Monica

When: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, through March 1

Tickets: $25

Info: (323) 466-3876 or www.citygarage.org

Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

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