Disturbing, daring, exceedingly funny, The Danube takes dark, unexpected turns. This fascinating one-act, now onstage in a sharply directed and well-acted production at Kitchen Dog Theater, begins with a deceptively conventional theatrical setup: Two men at a cafe table in 1938 Budapest chat amiably about weather, clean streets and movies. They speak in the simple, banal phrases of instructional language tapes. "How are things in the U.S.?'' says the Hungarian, Mr. Sandor (Joss Levine). "We have bad weather,'' answers the American, Paul Green (Ian Leson). "Would you like a cigarette?'' asks Mr. Sandor. Paul takes two and slips them into his shirt pocket.
Written in 1981 by Maria Irene Fornes, The Danube opens with painfully ordinary early scenes that seem designed to force the audience into dozy complacency. After the polite, opaque conversations in the beginning come more of the dozen or so "units,'' each introduced by a soothing male voice (Peter Stoll) repeating sentences from a "learn basic Hungarian'' tape. Mr. Sandor and Paul Green are joined at the cafe by Sandor's pretty daughter, Eve (Kelly Abbott), who gives every indication of falling in love at first sight with the friendly Paul. These three move to a park bench and sit down alongside a mysterious Mr. Kovacs (Christopher Carlos in the first of his four roles in the play). All four take turns listing in meticulous detail the occupations of their relatives, near and distant, a lengthy, intentionally boring litany of careers that includes waiters, carpenters, barbers, clerks, teachers, shoemakers, and on and on.
Eve and Paul make love. She is upset when he tells her his job in Budapest is at an end and he has to return to the United States. She begs him to stay, and their dialogue becomes alternately poetic and prosaic. "We are not afraid to appear foolish,'' Paul declares of his fellow Americans. "We are the foolish race!''
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On a date in a cafe, discussing whether to order "beef broth'' or "hot ham,'' Eve suddenly faints. Instead of rushing to help her, Paul turns slowly to the waiter (Carlos again), who asks, "You don't want fresh fruit?'' Paul pays him with a bushel of small bills. "Friction keeps a stone polished,'' drones the waiter. Only then does Paul assist Eve, whose illness spreads to the other characters and, it is alluded, to the entire city. "It is you who polluted me,'' Paul says accusingly.
Curiouser and curiouser it grows. In front of a sickly tree surrounded by piles of dead leaves, Eve wearily tells Paul her impression of the American work ethic. "The Egyptians lifted heavy stones to build monuments,'' she says. "You lift them to get rid of heavy stones.'' They continue this way, with Eve and Paul looking increasingly worried and ill and speaking in aphorisms so oblique they would leave even David Mamet scratching his head.
Then, about 25 minutes into the play, the first big surprise strikes like a lightning bolt. A tiny explosion rumbles through the Black Box Theater, though we're never quite sure if it represents some sort of environmental blast or is a symbol of a tectonic shift between the mind and heart of the character of Paul. Whichever it is, it arrives just as things are starting to seem a little too predictable in the script.
The jolt is a stunner. Director Dan Day and actors Leson and Abbott create the event onstage by providing a grotesque visual that brings to mind horrifying images of Hiroshima or September 11. It definitely slaps the audience to attention. Suddenly, we are no longer watching four people chatting about Budapest in 1938. As playwright Fornes states, the play "departs from the chronological realm.'' And we go along for the ride with a sense of nervous anticipation.
The second half of The Danube finds the characters looking progressively disheveled. In their post-nuclear getups, they shamble on and off the stage under showers of ash. "You are talking like a machine! It's what machines say!'' Eve cries to Paul. He answers dully, "It must be true if machines say it.'' No, it's not 1938 anymore. It might be 1968 or 2018. Paul could be a victim of a nuclear accident, or perhaps he's a political prisoner toiling in a Soviet gulag. Why does Eve beat him up with a pillow? Why does he cower under the blows?
Eve's father appears again, and in the funniest scene of the play the three main characters compare symptoms, like old people in a hospital waiting room. "She coughs, I throw up and you have diarrhea,'' Paul says to Mr. Sandor. "Let's call a doctor.'' They seem hopeless, terminal. They wither before our eyes. "I don't have a soul!'' wails Paul.
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Another surprise arrives with the appearance of three little puppet versions of Paul, Eve and Mr. Sandor (with the actors clearly visible behind their pint-sized images). Paul and Eve decide to leave the nightmarish place they're trapped in, and as they say goodbye to Sandor--or rather as the puppets say goodbye--the tiny puppets become symbols of the fragility of life. There is a tremendous poignancy in the play's use of puppetry, as if Fornes is making the point that we are but tiny creatures at the mercy of powers (good and evil) greater than ourselves. Daily life, made up of so many trivial details and insignificant conversations, is never to be taken for granted. Who knows what explosive event can alter our paths when we least expect it? Who can tell what puppetmaster may someday control our destinies?
The Danube is one of those rare theatrical experiences that carries a haunting afterglow. The Kitchen Dog cast is terrific, and all the technical aspects work to keep the focus on the words and ideas. It's the writing that makes this one memorable. This is a play that can do what it does only within the confines of a live theater. Unlike so many new plays that really are thinly disguised movie or sitcom scripts, The Danube is that purely theatrical thing whose magic would be lost in any other medium.
During his recent visit to Southern Methodist University, playwright Edward Albee said that he was "convinced that all art in the most indirect fashion is a political statement. But a political play doesn't have to be specifically political.'' The themes, political and otherwise, in The Danube are open to many interpretations. The art of the play is how Fornes avoids painting her messages on any billboards. On one level, the play could be a cautionary eco-fable. On another it's a statement about the devastating effect of totalitarian government on the human spirit. Or perhaps it's a story of love poisoned by circumstances.
Just about the time we think we've figured it out, though, the play explodes from any logical, linear format and, like the works of Samuel Beckett, Tom Stoppard and Albee, heads into the territory of the absurd and surreal. By the end of The Danube, there are hand puppets and clouds of nuclear ash floating through the air. Sirens wail in the distance. There's a glimpse of an American president giving a hearty thumbs-up. Nothing is what it seems, but it all makes for a provocative and memorable 75 minutes of theater.