Vaclav Havel, the late poet, playwright and president (Czechoslovakia's last, the Czech Republic's first), aimed his satirical eye at bureaucracy and corporate-speak in a play called "The Memorandum." It premiered 49 years ago, way before computers, cellphones, OMG and LOL, but it has hardly lost its relevance.
When a character in the play notes that we are "inevitably fragmenting" and becoming "more and more deeply alienated," the description still fits — if anything, more tightly. And when it is revealed that employees in the unnamed organization at the heart of the plot are under constant surveillance at their workplace, that doesn't exactly sound dated, either.
Havel's spicy and witty work, translated in 2012 by Paul Wilson and retitled "The Memo," is enjoying an effective revival at Single Carrot Theatre.
The play is set in motion when Mr. Gross, the sincere and proper agency head, gets rattled by the delivery of a memo written in a new official language called Ptydepe.
As in many a questionable corporate decision, this one purports to be about improving things. Ptydepe is guaranteed to provide an incomparable "degree of precision, reliability and clarity" by making sure that words "resemble each other as little as possible" and are "formed from the least probable combination of letters."
Although everyone in the company is supposed to use this new manner of communication, it has been mastered only by a handful of elusive souls. Gross' effort to get the fateful memo translated is the stuff of tragicomedy.
It's a fairly slender device to support a two-act, two-hour play. Havel has a tendency to reiterate points and situations, including more scenes of Ptydepe training than are necessary for comic effect, and the final wrapup takes too long. But at its best, "The Memo" has a good sting, relieved by some genuinely amusing bits.
Director Stephen Nunns keeps that humor coming in a briskly paced staging that reveals touches of Monty Python and the Marx Brothers along the way.
Rich Espey persuasively conveys the growing anxiety of Gross, as well as the character's shifting moral compass. As the table-turning deputy director Balas, Sarah Gretchen oozes confidence, guile and sensuality. Paul Diem shines as the Ptydepe instructor, somehow articulating the frequently vowel-challenged words with remarkable ebullience.
Everyone in the cast brings something distinctive to the insanity. Kristina Szilagy is especially enjoyable as a Valley girl-inflected secretary obsessed with her hair and going out for snacks.
There's some good visual shtick involving such unlikely props as a fire extinguisher and cutlery, but even more fun comes from the jolt of Leslie Yarmo's costumes. That oh-not-couture helps keep the whole atmosphere off kilter.
The action spins along on the nicely detailed, revolving set designed by Rick Gerriets — with such fancy stagecraft, Single Carrot might have to change its name to 24 Carat.
Even the canned music used throughout (cheesy instrumentals of Beatles tunes, a touch of Leroy Anderson, etc.) hits the spot.
So does the ultimate message tucked inside the craziness of "The Memo." It comes from the embattled Gross.
"We've created amazing virtual worlds and communication networks that span the globe," he says, "yet it seems harder and harder for us to establish real communications in the real world between real people."
When all is said and satirized, you might, as I did, feel just a teeny bit guilty reaching for your hand-held device on the way out of the theater.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun