It seems unlikely that a theater company specializing in new plays would be clueless as to the identity of one of its playwrights. After all, it's one thing for Shakespeare nuts to haggle over whether Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford — rather than that bloke from Stratford — wrote The Tempest, but quite another for a company working with living authors not to know the creative force behind a brilliant script written just 12 years ago. Yet this improbable state of affairs now seems to have arisen at the Magic Theatre.
The name Elaine May, author and director of two of the three one-act plays that make up the Magic's world-premiere production of “Moving Right Along,” is well known. The performer, director, and writer became famous in the 1960s as half of the comedy duo Nichols and May, and went on to pen Academy Award-nominated films like Heaven Can Wait and Primary Colors. But the name Jan Mirochek, the writer behind the first of the offerings in “Moving Right Along,” is shrouded in mystery.
If Mirochek's play, Killing Trotsky, were as dull as a political diatribe, I'd probably say the less we know about the author the better. But because the comedy is so disarming — a scathingly funny, molasses-dark view of life and art in a budding capitalist nation, and pithily acted and directed to boot — I can't help but be curious about the source. The press release optimistically describes Mirochek as a “celebrated Czech playwright,” yet the author's biography is curiously absent from the program. Not only that: Attempts to find out about the writer on both the English and Czech versions of Google returned nothing but a “Did you mean: Jan Microchek” message on the English site and a smattering of links to Magic Theatre-related pages on the Czech Web-based lists of contemporary Czech playwrights offered no mention of his name.
In our hoax-happy, post-JT LeRoy and lonelygirl15 age, it's tempting to think that the same hand — i.e., May's — penned all three plays. (The fact that May has a history of uncredited movie scripts to her name, from Tootsie to Dangerous Minds, provides cause for suspicion.) For although these one-acts seem to have little in common from a narrative point of view — Killing Trotsky tells the story of a high-strung playwright's desperate desire to see his latest work produced; the second, On the Way, centers around a conversation between a WASP-y, middle-aged bon viveur and his Latin chauffeur; in the third, George Is Dead, a newly widowed socialite pays a remote acquaintance an unexpected visit — they complement and echo each other in startling ways.
Thousands of miles separate the worlds of Killing Trotsky from On the Way and George Is Dead, yet a shadowy thread runs throughout the trilogy, binding the works together. Set in the Czech Republic in 1993 in the wake of the Velvet Revolution, Killing Trotsky probes the downside of the new freedom from Communist rule. Max, a “serious” playwright whose dramas (which all have the word “death” in the title) apparently have no place in the Czech Republic's shiny, new credit cardÐcarrying culture, resorts to turning his own life into theater of the most kitschy, melodramatic kind. A half-assed attempt to stage his own minirevolution by throwing himself out the window of his grubby attic apartment to a tinny recording of Richard Strauss' tone poem Death and Transfiguration leads only to bathos: Max (played with crackling impotence by Mark Rydell) ends up giggling like a schoolboy in the arms of his ancient landlady (a suitably spindly, sour-faced Wanda McCaddon).
May then advances Mirochek's themes in her own slickly written contributions, both set in New York circa 2006. In On the Way, Trotsky's legacy is trampled under the tires of a shiny black limousine as the vehicle speeds its owner to the airport for a weekend ski trip to Aspen. In this brave new world of laissez-faire individualism, dictators' names have become confused, forgotten even. “Was Hitler a real person?” asks Daveed Diggs' smiley, respectful Freddie, a 22-year-old driver from the Dominican Republic, to his incredulous passenger, George. Yet despite the fact that Freddie's avuncular, Harvard-educated patròn can tell Mussolini apart from Hitler (though he admits that his wife has trouble distinguishing between the two), George's high school textbook knowledge of history provides no better understanding of how the world works than Freddie's passion for salsa music and cheerful lack of interest in global affairs.
Picking up where the last play left off, George Is Dead slides further into the sleepy apathy of comfortable capitalism. George's Botoxed wife, Doreen (played with perfect cluelessness by Marlo Thomas), appears on the doorstep of Carla, the daughter of her childhood nanny, whom she hasn't seen for 40 years, seeking solace following news of the death of her husband in a ski accident. Cocooned in her childlike world, Doreen — echoing Max at the end of Killing Trotsky — is a helpless baby, as out of touch with her feelings as she is with reality. Forget Freddie's nonchalant attitude toward history; Doreen doesn't see the point of the past at all. “I don't understand the purpose of memories,” she admits. Carla becomes increasingly exasperated with her unwelcome houseguest's requests, which include everything from fetching her a nightie to scraping the salt off her bedtime saltines, yet she complies with Doreen's every whim — an ironic glance at the master-servant relationship depicted in On the Way.
Despite some imperfections — such as Jeannie Berlin's static direction of On the Way, and actor Julia Brothers' inability to transcend the passive natures of her characters (Max's girlfriend Anna in Killing Trotsky and George Is Dead's Carla) — there's something bewitching about how May's plays meld with the mysterious Mirochek's. Each one-act pulses with the same acerbic humor; wicked comedy and growling tragedy collide and balance each other. If the same person didn't write all these plays, then at the very least “Moving Right Along” feels like a collaboration between two symbiotic minds.
Yet it seems May is no wiser about the identity of Mirochek than we are (either that, or she's playing an elaborate game). According to Evren Odcikin, the Magic's marketing and communications director, the script came to May from Hungary via a friend in New York. Despite outreach to the Czech theater community, the Magic's efforts to track down the author remain fruitless. “Ms. May thinks that Jan Mirochek might be a writing name to hide the identity of the actual writer,” Odcikin said.
In a way, Mirochek's obscurity is fitting. As in the last line in the trilogy — Carla's defiant order to the funeral director that he should destroy George's cadaver (“Burn it,” she says, igniting a revolutionary spark) — all trace of Mirochek seems to have vanished. Yet his work lives on.