Source: Santa Monica Daily Press / / By Sarah A. Spitz /

You’re a popular dissident, your political writings spur action against a totalitarian government, your admirers depend on you, begging you not to weaken, as you sit in your house paralyzed by fear of the knock at the door that could take you away at any minute. Oh, and you’re not writing anything these days, either. That’s the “action” in Vaclav Havel’s semi-autobiographical play, “Largo Desolato,” in a stellar production at City Garage (Bergamot Station).

Paul M. Rubenstein
Photo Credit: Paul M. Rubenstein

For those of you who might need the history lesson, Havel was an intellectual and playwright who became a President: the last one for the nation of Czechoslovakia, and after it broke apart, the first one for the new Czech Republic. He’d been a political activist whose writings were banned in his own country. He was part of Charter 77, a manifesto calling for the government to honor its commitments to human rights, leading to creation of the Civic Forum party that sparked the “Velvet Revolution,” which helped bring down the Iron Curtain across Eastern Europe.

But in a police state, writing and signing such a document, considered a political crime, will get you locked up, and in Havel’s case, it did, a number of times, the longest for four years, 1979-1983. The play was likely written following his release; he was under continual surveillance by the state.


“Largo Desolato,” a musical reference, means a slow, grand, solitary phrase. And that’s what Leopold Nettles, a professor whose writing has made him a target of the authorities, is experiencing: a very dark night of the soul, when those who look up to him want too much of him, while others worry about his state of mind or are fed up with his self-isolation; when those who love him find him unable to reciprocate, while authorities threaten punishment if doesn’t deny he was the writer of his own words. He’s questioning himself and definitely leaning neurotic.

To put it mildly, he’s paranoid and anxious, he’s not the man he used to be, and he’s drinking and taking drugs to ease the fear. Troy Dunn does an extraordinary physical and verbal job of conveying Leopold’s tightly wound OCD behaviors, and his jittery interactions with the friends who stop by. One question here is: do they? Or does this play take place entirely in Leopold’s mind? Regardless, it works on all levels.

Apparently separated but still living with someone who may be his wife, Suzanna (Emily Asher Kellis) and her boyfriend Edward (Gifford Irvine) stop by, asking if he’s eaten, if he’s gone out, if he’s “gone” (as in, to the toilet). They can’t stay, they’ve got a date for the symphony or maybe it’s the ballet. Next up it’s the two Sidneys (well-played by Anthony Sannazzaro and Aaron Bray). In their blue uniforms and caps, they’re “men of the people” from the paper mill, who’ve come to let Leopold know how much he’s loved and counted on, and how important he is to everyone. In a neat casting trick, we’ll see them again.

Next his lover Lucy tries hopelessly to pull him out of his rut through love and seduction, but he’s an empty vessel, and his anxieties prevent him from performing. Angela Beyer gives a superb and convincing performance.

Another friend from the political sphere Bert (a woman, played by Trace Taylor), does a monologue about how Leopold needs to buckle down and get back into the game. I interpreted her as his conscience.

Then the two Sidneys, now in black trench coats and fedoras, come back as the “the chaps,” aka the government goons. If Lionel wants his situation to improve, all he needs to do is sign a document disavowing that he wrote what he wrote. He asks for time, and they drag Lucy away.


In Act II, an adoring student Marguerite (Marissa DuBois), inspired by his philosophical writing on love, comes to “rescue” him, attempting to do what Lucy could not. Again, unsuccessfully.

The two Sidneys return with paper from the mill for him to write on, and documents they’ve stolen for him to write about, hoping to reenergize Leopold’s political writing career.

Later, after Leopold makes up his mind that he’d rather go to prison than sign the document, the two goons return to further dehumanize him by saying his case has been adjourned “for the time being”—leaving him in limbo—and making him superfluous. Now not even his signature matters.

Definitively directed by Frederique Michel, with beautiful production design by Charles Duncombe, Largo Desolato was translated by Tom Stoppard, an English playwright who was born in Czechoslovakia; Havel dedicated the play to him.

Don’t miss this production. It’s at City Garage through March 1. Call (310) 453-9939 or visit (Link: Brown Paper Tickets).