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Them old emigre blues

There comes a moment when there's nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile. Janek and Anka, the Polish immigrants in Janusz Glowacki's "Hunting Cockroaches," have come to such a time.

Janek, a writer, and Anka, an actress, were artists in their native Poland but were driven out by the Polish government's post-Solidarity crackdown of the early 1980s. They are struggling with life in New York City. Their English is terrible, they can't get green cards, and the rats and the cockroaches are having a turf war over their flat.

"Hunting Cockroaches," directed by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Terri McMahon, is Southern Oregon University's spring play in its Center Square Theatre.

Designer Amanda Patt has cleverly turned into a gritty Lower East Side walk-up with a bare bulb, bars on the windows and tea bags hung up to dry out for re-use in an example of Polish recycling.

In this fish-out-of-water story, the young couple are the fish, and the water is America, with its challenges and indignities. Anka (Jordan Leigh Wakefield) kicks things off with a funny take on Lady Macbeth's "out damned spot" speech in a thick Polish accent. She cannot get work as an actress because of her accent. Is it bad? she asks us, breaking the fourth wall.

Janek (Jonathan W. Dyrud) talks about Dostoyevsky and teaches Kafka to kids who drive sports cars as an unpaid lecturer, but he hasn't written anything in a couple of years.

Plagued by matching cases of a truly monster insomnia, the couple share what they are learning with each other. Anka cannot work in New York without joining Actors' Equity, and she can't join Equity without having worked in New York.

American states' borders tend to be square and regular, Janek observes.

"Here in America you have to praise yourself," Anka notes.

Like the couple, Glowacki was an émigré; you suspect he's also acquainted with sleeplessness ("Insomniacs hate and fear other insomniacs," Janek says). Sleeplessness leads to the play's main conceit. As Janek and Anka try to soldier on at all hours, a surreal parade of horrors, hallucinations and various bêtes noires emerge from their rumpled bed. These range, like Anka and Janek's problems, from the real world to the Kafkaesque.

There is the chipper immigration agent who asks if they came to kill the president, causing Anka to wonder if real assassins would answer honestly. There's the good-cop-bad-cop team of Polish secret police, who treat the couple with contempt.

"You look smart," one says. "Why do you write?"

There is the crazy homeless guy who prefers "his" park to Central Park (it's for tourists). This prompts Janek to a scary thought: What if bums know you'll wind up in the park, just like the secret police knew you'd emigrate?

There are condescending Park Avenue liberals and a publisher's rep who knows Janek can write a "dark book" about America because immigrants have soul.

Playwright Tony Kushner has said there are lasagna plays and matzo plays. Kushner's "Angels in America," another look at New York in the '80s, is lasagna: a rich, multi-layered examination of social realities. Samuel Beckett was the ultimate matzo dramatist.

"Cockroaches" runs to matzo. We don't know much about what it's really like outside the window of this apartment, and we know little of Janek and Anka's inner life other than their anxieties. Glowacki's genius was to catch these people in extremis and never let up. There's an edgy craziness all the way through, and under McMahon's brisk direction (SOU often benefits from the old pros at OSF), it grows darker in the second act.

Wakefield and Dyrud are extremely attractive and winning in their roles, with only hints of accent slippage here and there. Some of the play's material may be unfamiliar to those who don't remember the '80s, such as students. Amanda Patt's set could have gone to the fantastical, reflecting half this play's split personality, but kept to kitchen-sink realism, with good effect.

There's no "ending" here, but if anything will keep Anka and Janek afloat it's going to be the ability to smile a dark, crooked smile. As Beckett said, you must go on. You can't go on. You go on. And here, you smile.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.

Jonathan Dyrud and Jordan Leigh Wakefield play Janek and Anka in the Southern Oregon University Department of Theatre Arts production of 'Hunting Cockroaches.' - Photo by Dennis Dunleavy