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Play about communism both silly and serious

The latest play by one-of-a-kind dramatist Richard Foreman, now onstage at Foreman's own Ontological-Hysteric Theater in Greenwich Village, has only two characters. But it makes up for the minimalism of its cast with a title that's as long as it is unexpected: "Now That Communism Is Dead, My Life Feels Empty."

The characters are Fred and Freddy - played by Tony Torn and Jay Smith, who have worked with Foreman and each other before - and they're the type of self-conscious mavericks who used to be called hipsters. They've long believed in radical lifestyles as a route to personal and political improvement, but changes in the modern world have disillusioned and disoriented them. This includes the fall of communism, once thought by many to be the recipe for utopia.

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Foreman clearly sees these guys as fairly ridiculous figures. They wear silly clothes, say silly things - with densely surrealistic twists, as always in Foreman's plays - and have the kinds of silly hairstyles that weren't considered silly in the characters' heyday in the '60s.

Yet there's something serious and poignant in their predicament. "In the real world," Foreman writes in a program note, "embodied Communism had dark, catastrophic results. But in the realm of pure ideas, its promise of egalitarian paradise on earth spoke to the suppressed yearning of millions of people."

Foreman's interest in communism has little to do with its actual practices, but with the implicit notion that yearning for ideals is exciting and liberating for its own sake. Foreman feels art itself is valuable since the process of considering different ways to live - even ways that seems scary or dangerous at first, or prove unworkable when they're tried out - is crucial if we're to remain flexible and open-minded.

Foreman wants theater to be a laboratory for far-reaching thought experiments, which is why he avoids straight-ahead stories in favor of intricate collages of words, gestures, and flamboyant set designs. His plays aren't for everyone, but there are few contemporary authors who have gathered such an enthusiastic following with such uncompromising, individualistic work.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor