He was a nice Jewish boy from Tampa, on his way to becoming a doctor. His father is a podiatrist and, he recalls, his friend Evan’s dad was an eye doctor who had a really big house. But a year and a half into medical school, Drew Valins walked away.
These days the lanky New Yorker with a light brown beard is an actor and this week he opens in “The Vaclav Havel Project,” a double bill featuring one work by Czech dissident playwright-turned-statesman Havel and another, a world premiere musical featuring Havel’s alter ego, Vanek. The pair of works run at Arlington’s black box theater in the Artisphere on selected days through May 18 and then travels to the Prague festival next month.
Valins’ path to the stage has been circuitous, but along the way his experiences — from a few months waiting tables in France and a stint on Kibbutz Hazorea, in Israel’s Jezreel Valley to a master’s degree in Jungian psychology — proved elemental in his development as an actor. On his time on kibbutz he said, “You were outside at 5 a.m. You worked. Then you ate lunch and then you’re done. You sat and smoked cigarettes, talked. Time was different there, it was more of the socialist system. I worked in the kitchen, did gardening. Eventually I worked in the water lily industry where I found my niche.”
He said the experience was transformational. The self-described ever-conscientious student learned to think creatively, sit under a tree and read for pleasure, and most importantly, discover his creative side.
Valins, 38, was introduced to Czech theater director and actress Mirenka Cechova, who saw a bit of Havel in his unassuming persona. “I really had no idea who he was before I began this piece,” he admitted. But he has immersed himself in the playwright’s essays, letters and speeches.
“The character I’m playing, Vanek, Havel’s alter ego, is the distillation of what Havel didn’t like about himself: what he called his ‘pathological politeness,’ ” Valins said.
He also sees a similarity between Havel, who died three years ago, and Prague’s other literary giant, Franz Kafka (1883-1924).
“Havel said if he had to name his greatest artistic influence it would be Kafka. Yet, even though they are similar,” Valins said, “Havel lived in the world: he married, he became a politician. He got dirty. He gave up his art to some degree to serve his people.”
Kafka, a Jew, lived life as a recluse mostly at his parents’ house and his writing reflects perhaps his own inner turmoil through themes of alienation, family conflict, overwhelming bureaucracy and fantastical anthropomorphic transformations.
“I was thinking about the Jewish ideas in Havel’s [character and works] because I think I draw on my Jewishness personally to connect to him,” Valins said. “You know how we have the Jewish stereotype that we can be very equivocal: ‘this is good, but that’s also good.’ It’s a source of our comedy. The indecision of Kafka is one example of our pathology: imagining so many scenarios that it veers toward mental illness.”
He continues: “Havel also has that quality. That’s what makes him so beautiful and so open: that he is constantly expressing doubts about himself. He’s very self-deprecating … somehow he has this sense of theater of the absurd, that life is absurd. Kafka isolated himself, whereas Havel was in the world: he became a man. That’s a Jewish place. It’s very easy for me to relate to the guy.”
Unveiling is known as one of Havel’s most popular plays for its open tweaking of communism with the presence of a bourgeois couple entertaining their dissident playwright friend Vanek. The director Cechova decided to reset the work in America, updating it for an audience less versed in the Communist ideals Havel’s original audience was weaned on. “We wanted to strip it of its Communist specificity,” Valins said, “so we as actors and American audiences can relate to it. There is still some communist subtext there and also a lot of physicality, which really brings out the absurdity” of the situation.
Vanek Unleashed is a contemporary response to Unveiling, written by Susan Galbraith and composer Maurice Saylor. “The new piece is a musical that puts Vanek in a nondescript jail — and, of course, Havel was in jail,” the actor said.
The work, with more than a dozen original songs, plays like an homage to silent movies, with chase scenes, an ingenue, a Keystone cop, a clownish boss and more hijinks. “Havel had of a very strong sense of fate,” Valins noted. “Where Havel is winking, Kafka takes so much on himself that he carries a sense of guilt.”
“The Vaclav Havel Project”: Unveiling and Vanek Unleashed is onstage May 8, 14 and 15 at 7 and 9:30 p.m. and May 11 and 18 at 2 p.m. at the Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd. in Arlington. Tickets $20-$30. 202-966-3104 or www.newmusictheatre.org.