Reunion In Prague
REVIEW by Willard Manus

LOS ANGELES -- Actress/writer Hildy Brooks has made a play out of her relationship with the Czech sculptor Olbram Zoubek, whom she first met in 1968 during the short-lived "Prague Spring" in communist Czechoslovakia.

Brooks, who plays herself (renamed Lily) in the two-character drama, was in her early 20s at the time, a vivacious and idealistic girl who felt there was a spiritual hole in her life, an emptiness that neither professional nor personal success could fill. Opposed to the war in Vietnam but repelled by the drugs, sex and violence of the hippies and Black Panthers who were leading the fight against the war, she fled the USA for Europe and found her way to Prague, where she was so taken with Zoubek's public sculptures that she sought him out at his studio.

Zoubek (played by Jim Antonio, Brooks' husband), who was twice her age and a married man with a child, spoke very little English; Lily spoke even less Czech. Yet the two of them, one suffering from psychological wounds, the other from political abuse (at the hands of the Stalinists), still managed, in a brief 20-minute kaffe klatsch, to form a bond that remained strong and vital over the next 22 years, thanks to the letters they exchanged from opposite sides of the Atlantic.
Brooks and her director, Jack Betts, have had to be clever in the way they have staged the play, which consists mostly of quotes from the Lily/ Zoubek correspondence. Sometimes the actors speak their lines while seated at their respective writing desks; other times they utter their thoughts while engaged in physical activities. The lack of conflict and confrontation makes for a static play which is somewhat overcome by the richness of language and the fleshing out of character. Betts also has Zoubek do a kind of goofy Central European vaudeville act in which he sings and dances to a Czech show tune. The bit is funny and touching, but is carried on to an excessive length.

REUNION IN PRAGUE succeeds because of its exploration of character and history. We get to know Lily and Zoudek over the course of their epistolary relationship, which is played out against the backdrop of the latter half of the 20th century. Hildy, in L.A., lives through Vietnam, race riots, a failed show business career (though she does become an accomplished painter); Zoudek survives continuing political persection, the crushing of the Prague Spring by Red Army tanks, the death of his wife, banishment to another city. Neither allows these personal problems, however, to sully their warm, strong feelings for each other. They continue to write, express their hearts and minds, with complete honesty and fidelity.

The purity of this relationship is challenged only when Lily returns to Prague in 1990, after communism has fallen, and she seeks out Zoudek. Perfection runs smack up against reality in an ending that gives REUNION IN PRAGUE a bittersweet and ironic twist that is as moving as it is inevitable.

Brooks and Antonio give convincing and richly textured performances. They are backed up ably by Betts and his creative team, especially lighting designer Thomas Meleck and sound & video operator Katharine McEwen.

(At the Lee Strasberg Creative Center, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd. in W. Hollywood. Call (323) 650-777.)