Take a story about historic art restoration, communism, and human misery, add a ton of heart, humor, hope and hubris, and you might get something approximating David Edgar's Pentecost. The PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project) revival of Edgar's 1994 play takes the audience to an unnamed Eastern European country shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, and never stops moving. Just when you think you know where the play is headed, the action suddenly shifts and veers off course.
PTP/NYC's production is seamless, with splendid acting -- stand-outs were Tosca Giustini as energetic, saucy Gabriella Pecs, Nina Silver as Anna Jedlikova, a former dissident who has turned into a "jailer" of her people, and Mari Vial-Golden, playing Yasmin. All of these women flesh out their characters with their performances, making them as nuanced and complex as the script allows. The clever set design by Mark Evancho is another gem.
For those unaware of Soviet culture and politics, many of the jokes and references in the play will seem opaque. "What's the difference between a Lada and a Jehovah's witness?" a character jokes at one point in the play. "You can close the door on a Jehovah's witness." (I resisted the urge to Google until intermission.) As frustrating as it can be, Edgar uses details like this to really make the audience feel like they're a stranger in Eastern Europe: lost, waiting for something familiar to appear. This allows us to sit back, shed our preconceived notions about the Soviet Union, and let the characters tell their stories. Some of these characters feel villainous when they're introduced -- like Leo Katz, a rival art historian who tries to halt the work of our protagonists Gabriella and Oliver -- but by the end of the play, every character, no matter how small, is fully realized, their humanity uncovered. The play raises complicated questions about the true place of art, and amnesty towards refugees, and refuses to give us simple answers, letting us sit with the uncomfortable feeling that something beautiful may be destroyed, and there's no way to stop it.
The effect of the Soviet Union's rise and fall on the entire block of Eastern Europe is one of those things many may know about in an abstract way, yet find hard to fully imagine. Pentecost uses art and terrorism and real, raw characters to take us there so we can see it for ourselves -- and these people, these lives, will stay with you for a long time after the curtain closes.
"Pentecost" runs in rep with "Gertrude - The Cry" through Aug. 9 at Atlantic Theater Company, Stage 2.