12. 18. 2006. 10:37

Sports the Hungarians do badly

Zoltán Egressy: Portugal; Spinach and Chips

After a certain number of performances, a production takes on a life of its own, and the critic is unable to review it as an isolated night of entertainment. It has become a continuum, an institution, evolving over time as a living creature would. Such is the case with Zoltán Egressy's two plays.

Both Portugál (Portugal) and Sóska, sültkrumpli (Spinach and Chips) have Budapest productions that have run for years in their respective theatres; both continue to draw sold-out houses and devoted fans.

Of the two plays, Portugal has the more complicated history. It premiered at the Katona József Theatre in the 1998–1999 season, in the studio space. Due to its popularity, it has since moved to the main stage. There was also a successful film version featuring many of the actors from the stage production. If you see the play this season, for instance, you will find five actors from the film, still in their original roles. 

For the most part, the action unfolds in the laid-back, seedy bar of a small town in the middle of nowhere. Irgács is the name of the nonexistent town; however, anyone who has visited a kocsma in a small, depressed Hungarian village will immediately recognize the setting. This bar is presided over by the slovenly, yet charismatic bartender Lajos (played by Imre Csuja) and his comely daughter Ribbon (Réka Pelsoczy). Their regular customers include an aggressive lowlife named Radish (Tamás Lengyel), who was kicked out of the police force because of his violent tactics; a visiting priest (played either by Péter Takátsy or director Andor Lukáts) who drinks Unicum by the tray-full; and Satan (played by Zoltán Varga), the barely verbal town drunk in a town full of drunkards. The ensemble is completed by a gawky misfit named Tweezer (János Bán), who spends most of his time avoiding his alcoholic wife Judit (Ági Szirtes). She has difficulty riding a bicycle and is prone to shouting "My cock!" when frustrated or annoyed. One day follows the next without change.

The status quo is disturbed by the arrival of a young essay-writing backpacker from Budapest. His stated intention is to move on to Portugal, yet he seems to linger in the small town indefinitely. He does not even receive a name. Ribbon dubs him Bece, a play on the Hungarian word becenév, which means nickname. Besides romancing Ribbon and casting a spell over nearly everyone, he appears to be a dire threat to Radish – who, as one of the few relatively young eligible bachelors in town, had come to regard Ribbon as his own. The appearance of Bece's wife, who hopes to drag her spouse back to Budapest, Lajos's attempts to marry off his daughter to the city boy, and the increasingly serious threats of violence from Radish – all these serve to complicate the plot.

As a cross-section of humanity, the bar-goers in Portugal are a pitiful spectacle. Most are so immature and irresponsible that they seem incapable of the smallest requirements of daily life. While the widower Lajos proves a loving, if flawed, father to Ribbon, the only other parent we see is Satan, who regularly drinks himself into catatonia. Of course, this could be his only solace, since he is denied access to his daughter, who (it is rumored) is being beaten by her stepfather Bittner. Despite the grotesque atmosphere, Portugal's genuinely funny scenes and dialogue, as well as its leisurely rural pace, make it an enjoyable evening of theatre.

Perhaps the key to the play's success is the droll, indulgent way it treats its characters. While their flaws are criticized, even magnified onstage, no one is mocked or ridiculed outright. Egressy and director Andor Lukáts (indeed, the entire cast) have located the human in all these characters. Even Satan has his moments of grace as he staggers helplessly under a tower of crates, drunkenly helping Lajos restock the bar. The audience gasps as he spins and weaves, and yet not a single bottle drops. There is another moment when Satan and Judit meet alone in the bar. They are the two most isolated figures in the play; however, when they dance awkwardly together to the jukebox, they are suddenly transported to another world, thanks to lighting effects and their own inspired physicality. They transcend their earthly limitations, and unlike Bece, they do not need to run off to Portugal or hear fado to do so.

Perhaps director Andor Lukáts deserves sole credit for these brilliant moments. They are nowhere to be found in the original script. (The movie did, though, include a different version of the transcendent dance scene.) What is cut from the play are some of Ribbon's dialogues with Bece. While this does not affect their relationship in the play, her character does suffer as a result. Also trimmed was the priest's final conversation with Bece. When Bece, unwilling to witness the unpleasant consequences of his sojourn, plans to slip out of town, the priest is the only one who criticizes the young man's actions. From this point of view alone, the complete conversation is significant. In the shortened version, Bece asks the priest for an absolution, which the priest grants reluctantly with an air of indifference.

There are two other changes to the script that profoundly alter the play's effect. (I feel, in a positive way.) First of all, when the climax arrives, Radish appears onstage brandishing a knife. Now, any audience member following the story would naturally assume that he is coming to kill Bece. Then, the scene changes to reveal Radish standing above a dead body. It is Bittner, Satan's young daughter's abusive stepfather. This type of bait-and-switch can seem particularly contrived and manipulative to an audience – or downright confusing if no one remembers that Radish promised Satan "to take care of" Bittner in the very first scene. In this staging, Radish chases Bece around with a knife at a crowded village fair. Bittner (here, too, in a non-speaking role) steps between them and is accidentally killed. Dramaturgically (not to mention, logically) speaking, it is a far more satisfying development. (The movie sidesteps the murder altogether by having Radish humiliate Bece and expel him from the village on a tractor. "Take him to Portugal!" is the final line.)

Secondly, in terms of one of the final stage pictures, Lukáts's production instills an element of hope at the end. Tweezers returns from the city bearing a gift for his wife. No, it is not a "bitbull" as she had hoped, but a pair of tacky platform heels. In the original script, Judit cannot walk in them. She falls several times and has to be led out on the arm of her husband, who wants to show the neighborhood how they have come up in the world. Onstage, Ági Szirtes as Judit tries on the platform shoes awkwardly; yet, she exits the scene unaided and in triumph, striding along in the heels like a cross-country skier. This action is a rare uplifting moment in the play. On the night of the review, it drew spontaneous applause from the spectators. It is also far more resonant than the ultimate stage picture – that of Ribbon and Satan left alone onstage, both staring off into space, experiencing that infinite sadness that Bece described as saudade.

As far as the cast is concerned, the standouts remain Ági Szirtes and Zoltán Varga. They won critics' awards for best supporting actor and actress in the 1998–1999 season, when the play first appeared. With time, they seem to have grown into their roles even more. As Judit and Satan, they effortlessly embody the characters. Imre Csuja gives an equally true-to-life portrayal as Lajos. The weak link in the play is Bece (now played by Károly Hajduk). As the most normal character of the bunch, he could very well be the hardest to portray. Neither in the movie nor onstage has this figure seemed lovable enough. At the end of the first act, he delivers a speech about Portugal that is supposed to enchant Ribbon, but it plays like flat champagne. Eszter Ónodi will be missed as Bece's wife. In the film and onstage, she gave completely different performances – one as a ruthless yuppie, the other as a vulnerable and sheltered snob, both utterly convincing. She has passed the role onto Adél Jordán. If only Réka Pelsoczy would follow this example! Ribbon, at 25, has always seemed too old to be a naive village waif; and now, Ms. Pelsoczy seems too old to be Ribbon. The production could use an injection of fresh blood here.

Spinach and Chips at the Shure Studio has become an enduring classic on the Budapesti Kamaraszínház repertoire. This month (December 2006), the production receives its 175th performance with the very same cast. By way of illustration, I sat next to a young boy in the first row who claimed to have seen the show 34 times. How he managed to keep such an accurate count is anybody's guess. In any case, he seemed to know every word of the play. Spinach and Chips has appeared in several incarnations throughout Hungary, even as a short-lived English-language production by the Madhouse Company at the Merlin Theatre venue. Still, the version at the Shure Studio has proved the most successful.

Here, there is no ensemble cast, just three characters: two line-guards and a referee in the changing room before, during, and after a local soccer match. Here we find the same exaggerated human foibles –stupidity, vanity, alcoholism, etc. – that were on display in Portugal. These grotesque figures are also depicted in a gently indulgent way. The novelty here is the sports-talk and soccer jargon, which the characters handle naturally and effortlessly, giving us a very unlikely behind-the-scenes view of the game. The fact that we get an intimate peek at the lives of these mostly overlooked (if not mocked and despised) soccer employees gives the play its special appeal. (Egressy wrote another sports play entitled 4 x 100 about a women's relay team. Although seemingly a female version of Spinach and Chips with many similar themes, this play focused instead on the athletes and coaches. It ran for a short time at the Merlin Theatre and prompted critic Andrea Tompa to ask, "Why does Egressy always choose sports that the Hungarians do badly?")

In the script, there is a naturalistic attention to detail (specifying a percolator with two portions of coffee resting on a cooker, a soda water dispenser, and so on). Director Tamás Sas respected this vision by creating an authentic locker-room set. To aid the illusion – after the audience is seated and before the play begins – a cleaning woman comes in with a portable radio, perfunctorily mops the dirty linoleum, and exits. During the intermission, a TV monitor in the lobby provides another inspired touch. We get to watch highlights from the soccer game in progress, intercut with shots of the actors at work on the sidelines.

As for the scenario, Soap and Artist are the two unhappy line guards. Soap is still angry about being demoted from referee. Artist has lost his girlfriend Mariann, who always used to give him spinach and chips before each match. She left him for Laci, the referee for that day's match. Artist deals with the loss by drinking vast quantities of alcohol and writing awful poetry. Since both men, justly or unjustly, blame Laci for their misfortunes, they decide to sabotage the game to get revenge.

The humor is not particularly refined, often centering on bodily functions. Artist, who is suffering from a terrible hangover, is always on the verge of vomiting. Laci, the referee, has diarrhea. Cigarette ash is dropped in a coffee cup, characters talk with their mouths full and spray each other with food, etc. Nevertheless, there is poetry in the characters' primitive use of language, and Egressy knows how to keep the action moving along at a brisk pace.

The plot thickens during halftime, when Soap steals Laci's yellow card for fouls. This means Laci will only be able to eject players from the game (with a red card) during the second half. Given the belligerent mood of the fans, this could well start a riot in the stadium. Although Artist objects to such a diabolical act, Soap eventually persuades him to hide the card on his person. The last scene takes place after the match, when the three judges are driven back into the changing room, where they take refuge from the angry mob.

The actors are certainly comfortable with the material. They are playing on home turf, so to speak. Zoltán Karácsonyi has the soul of his character Artist in his back pocket. He can do no wrong in the role. Károly Nemcsák hams it up as Soap, and his constant mugging can get on one's nerves. Nevertheless, he has realized this character remarkably well. By the end of this play, we know this man, inside and out. He is petty, cowardly, stupid, vindictive, treacherous, hypocritical, lazy, and utterly human. Péter Bozsó is the weakest of the three. I have seen him play the referee once as an aloof yuppie and on another occasion as an ambitious young climber. In both cases, he nailed the character's vanity. When he practises blowing his whistle, with appropriate hand gestures, before the match, it is one of the funniest moments in the show. Still, he does not manage to capture all the facets of his character – in particular, Laci's mean-spirited streak.

Finally, we come to the plays Achilles' heel, which is its stupendous anti-climax. Although Zoltán Egressy prepares us from the very start for a violent mob of soccer hooligans, the threat never materializes. The three characters remain holed up in the changing room, and eventually, the crowd outside goes away. This creates a very disappointing drop in tension. Laci suspects Soap stole the yellow card, but he cannot prove it. This terrible breach of conduct is never adequately examined or resolved, and no one pays any consequences. While one could argue that things happen this way in real life, it makes for a terribly weak ending to a piece of drama.

By way of catharsis, Soap delivers a passionate monologue about his love of the sport. (This is similar to the device in Portugal, when Lajos the bartender delivers an emotional speech to the priest in the last scene.) Also, it is revealed that Mariann has left Laci for an official even higher in the soccer chain of command, a mercenary manager named Bittner. (Yes, another Bittner. In this play, he is not only a mute manifestation of evil, he never appears onstage at all.) The only character who evolves is Artist. After he acknowledges the ugly truth about Mariann, he returns to writing poetry with fresh inspiration. His poetry is still awful, of course, but his new verses have a more optimistic ring. He is looking forward to a life without Mariann, without spinach and chips.  

Running in repertory as long as these plays have, they have acquired a special energy and momentum that comes of a shared history. Zoltán Egressy wrote the base material, but the directors and producers gave it vision, the actors life. Ultimately, the audience provides the fresh enthusiasm that keeps the shows going night after night. It is a tribute to Egressy that he has created works that inspire artists and capture theatergoers' imaginations so well. Portugal and Spinach and Chips will no doubt have an enduring legacy, even after these popular productions close.

Patrick Mullowney

Tags: Zoltán Egressy: Portugal; Spinach and Chips