The Increased Difficulty of Concentration
nytheatre.com review by Matt Johnston
November 5, 2006
In Vaclav Havel's The Increased Difficulty of Concentration, our faithful absurd playwright treads very familiar waters for those of us well-acquainted with the work of Pinter, Ionesco, and Beckett. I say this because this is, in many ways, one of his most existential plays. Therefore, it is incredibly engaging and wonderful to see a playwright of this skill at work in this format. What is disappointing here, though, is that this production doesn't seem to find a way into the existential milieu that Havel is writing in.
The play revolves around Dr. Huml, a social scientist having troubling balancing his wife, his mistress, and his philosophical ideas on life. As if he doesn't fragment himself enough, Havel's play fragments itself as well. The characters are clear and the situations are relatively straightforward. But the play doesn't move in a progressive direction all the time. Instead, it sits on itself. Huml discusses daily plans with his wife, he argues with his mistress about when he will get a divorce and be with her alone, and he dictates to his administrative assistant and tries to kiss her. Each of these scenes play themselves out a number of times and in different incarnations. At times, dialogue is repeated, other times a scene is taken in a new direction from an established base. We come to learn a lot about Huml in the process, even if the world is somewhat absurd.
Throughout all of this, a group of "scientists" take over Huml's house, equipped with an artificial intelligence machine. They are performing a study to see if human personalities are random or formed by social events. Or at least, that was the mission I came away with for them. This machine attempts to find out everything about a person by being in their home, and then taking that information and comparing it against all the information it has about all other people in the world. The machine fails over and over again, and constantly demands maintenance. This doesn't stop the scientists from continuing to try, until Huml's philosophies win the day.
The play is really very interesting, and affirms Havel's place amongst the great absurdists of the mid-20th century. The issue with this production, which is directed by Yolanda Hawkins, is that it unfortunately isn't able to plunge itself into Havel's existential world. A play with such absurdity at its core demands a different sort of staging than a realistic play. And even though the acting styles delve into the absurdity of the world, the production moves along at a pace and style that suits a more realistic play.