SYNOPSIS

A universal drama about the world’s Sarajevos---in which friend kills friend while the world watches---and about the saving power in this inhuman context of normalcy and the human tie.

Dramatized in the bond forged between “Vlado,” under fire in Sarajevo, and “Rhonda,” a citizen of the American superpower moved by the televised carnage to reach out.  (Based on my calls with Vlado Azinovic in Sarajevo during the last year of the siege, 1992-95.)

As Act I (“The Siege”) opens, Vlado is losing his grip: dodging snipers for three years as the world watches---and he watches himself play target; running Radio Zed, one of the last independent stations (“keeping normal life alive” with talk shows, rock music) but losing listeners to political stations; caring for his mother, fragile girlfriend, young staff.  Just in time, as sniping escalates to shelling, and after hearing him on National Public Radio, Rhonda becomes his lifeline.  Why?  Shamed by the inaction of her government, the superpower, she wants to help; and at sea in our “helium culture,” she seeks a test.  Embracing her normalcy, Vlado poses the major dramatic question: Will they meet someday for coffee?  But first, he must survive.

Once Vlado as “recovering historian” sets the context---of war shifted from battlefield to street---complications ensue.  Drafted, he goes underground; she finds his phone number and, hearing fear under his cool, gives her hand.  He surfaces and is betrayed by his best friend over ethnicity; she begins actions to get him out, including writing “our” play (leading to high conflict with “Mr. Producer”).  With mortars falling, he finally quits Sarajevo, then vacillates.  When she asks why, to the rootless American he cries: “It’s home!”  But: The airport closes and he is “stuck”; as Act I ends, Vlado it seems will die.

In Act One, their growing bond has many effects: A stone at first, Vlado warms up, and stabilizes mentally; she feels elevated, powerful; also these nonbelievers feel stirrings of the sacred.  All of which builds into unspoken love; will love speak?  Her marriage at stake, they observe “the line,” a line the snipers (and the world) ignore.  For his part, the husband plays a key role, proud his wife has found her “proper subject” and, as a national security strategist, source of crucial advice to Vlado; then as intimacy grows between his wife and the tragic hero, rather than jealousy he employs a strategy of trust.

Act II (“The Funny Little Syndrome”) opens on a high note: Vlado’s escaped!  Then, the reversal: his guilt at abandoning Mother; his inability to find work; landing at Radio Free Europe only to report on more carnage; her agony at pushing him from his home; leading to crisis---his outburst at her and cri di coeur, “I’ll never be normal again!”  To save their bond, also get normal, as climax they meet---finally---face to face.

A note: Rhonda’s conflict with Mr. Producer in developing their play’s “raw truth” raises the question, In chaos, what is drama?  Is conflict redundant; is in-your-face conflict overkill? He also questions Rhonda’s empathy, a theme posed throughout to the audience: With the world’s suffering now “in the room with us” via TV, what is our relationship to it? 

In short, this play asks: Who cares?  And why?

EXCERPTS

 

CHARACTERS

VLADO (pronounced VLAH-doh)---historian/journalist, mid-30s

RHONDA---writer/playwright, “of a certain age”

MR. PRODUCER---his input is delivered by Rhonda

Various voices (taped)

 

SETTING

On the phone and in the mind. 

 

TIME

Specifically: 1994-‘95, the last year of the siege of Sarajevo.  Universally: Today.

 

 “All those I might have helped.  Helped!  Saved.  Saved!  The place was crawling with them!” --- Samuel Beckett, Endgame

 

“All moral engagement personalizes; if it doesn’t get personal, it doesn’t last.  But if it only personalizes, it quickly dissipates.  Empathy untouched by analysis, by some deeper understanding of what is at stake, quickly evaporates.” --- Michael Ignatieff

 

 

EXCERPT I: Scenes 1-3, Act One

 

Scene 1, “You have almost no pulse”

 

Setting: Washington, D.C., and wartime Sarajevo.

At rise: SOUND of SNIPER FIRE.  HALF LIGHTS UP on VLADO, who sits in his office, shivering.  FULL LIGHTS UP on RHONDA, who nervously goes over notes.  Then: SOUND of DIALING international connection.

 

RHONDA

Sir: I think a great crime is happening against Sarajevo---a great crime.  World War Two was about “Never again” and here it is---again.  This time we can’t say we don’t know, because: We know.  People dying on CNN---three years now!  I’m haunted: Sarajevo was the Paris of the Balkans---the Paris of the Balkans: theatre, music, cafes---and so open: mosques next to cathedrals, churches, synagogues.  And now, snipers in the hills firing away, some specializing in children---God I hate bullies!---“peacekeepers” on the ground, not-firing back.  All caught on film and---I am so ashamed---no audience response.  It’s a new marker, it---really is....

 

VLADO

Nice speech but: Do you have some troops with you?

 

RHONDA

Well, military intervention is the big question for us, the “sole superpower.”  While you’re being shot at, my husband and I have had---debates, many.  He’s former military and doubts intervention could work, short of saturating your country, while I advocate anything to stop the killing.  I can’t bear more----(cut off by)

 

VLADO

With all due respect: Are (shivering) y-you a do-gooder?

 

RHONDA

Have you been getting many such calls....?

 

Vlado is silent.

 

RHONDA

You’re cold, aren’t you.  I hear your teeth chattering.

 

VLADO

They’re chattering because I’m talking.  Please: What is the purpose of your call, apart from winning an argument with your husband.

 

RHONDA

They’re debates.  I am a playwright----

 

VLADO

Ah: and you want to get a play off us.

 

RHONDA

I have written a play, which I give you.  Since you run a cultural radio station, I thought a drama might interest you---apart from the drama outside.

 

VLADO

How did you learn of Radio Zed?  [pronounced Rahdio]

 

RHONDA

I heard you on National Public Radio yesterday.  I so admire what you’re doing, under insane conditions.  Your story about stealing fuel from U.N. vehicles to run your generators: wonderful.

 

VLADO

Huh....  (Beat)  So: What is your play about?

 

RHONDA

How people find reasons to let a crime go forward---as the world is doing with Sarajevo.  I give it to explain, not excuse our inaction.  I hope it’ll---comfort you, it’s the only way I can intervene----  Good God, out here in TV Land we see the insanity as it’s happening, it’s not coming by messenger or packet ship.  It’s---in the room with us.

 

VLADO

We’re watching too.  Just love being the world’s sport!

 

RHONDA

I feel we, the watchers, have a relationship and thus a responsibility to you, the watched.  And writers: Writers should take action, not save their humanity for their art----(stops and rolls her eyes).  I’m sorry; maybe this wasn’t a good idea----

 

VLADO

What is your relationship to me....?

 

RHONDA

I don’t know but....  Taking a leap here, this phone is a stethoscope and I have to say: You have almost no pulse.

 

VLADO

Why didn’t you say that in the first place?

 

RHONDA

I’ve never called into Hell before.

 

VLADO

Since you are the only one who’s taken my pulse----  Where are you calling from?

 

RHONDA

Washington.

 

VLADO

Center of the world....  Give me your phone number---if I can find a pen....  It’s night here---we’re six hours ahead of you---and I’m sitting in complete darkness.  If those “people in the hills” hadn’t cut off our electricity---again---you could fax your play.  Our postal service has been destroyed-----

 

RHONDA

So has ours (laughs nervously).  Sorry, I’m nervous.

 

VLADO

(Beat)  All right, go ahead, I’ve got a piece of paper on my leg.

 

RHONDA

(Beat)  Sir: May I call you Vlado?

 

LIGHTS UP on VLADO: The electricity comes on.

 

VLADO

Yes....  Vlado would be nice.  “Sir” was nice too.  And may I call you Lucia?

 

RHONDA

If you want.  My name is Rhonda.

 

VLADO

O.K., Rhonda: Start faxing.  I’ll call you with my decision about your play.  Oh, and thanks for not asking, “Do you go through Sniper’s Alley?”

 

RHONDA

I assume you do.

 

VLADO

Yup.  I wish you a “Merry Christmas.”

 

RHONDA

I’ll wish you peace in the New Year instead.  Vlado: Take care.  I read that’s what people in Sarajevo say when they part: “Take care.”

 

 

Scene 2, “I need to talk”

 

SOUND of REVOLVER SHOT.  VLADO holds the paper with Rhonda’s phone number.

 

VLADO

Hi.  It’s Vlado.  Uh, did you have a nice Christmas?

 

RHONDA

(Beat)  Very.  And, uh, you?

 

VLADO

Pleasant.  I spent it with my mother and my girlfriend.  I live with Mother.  Father died this year.  This was our first “holy-day” without him, not that I’m religious anymore.

 

RHONDA

I question too....

 

Awkward silence.

 

VLADO

So, what’re you doing?

 

RHONDA

Working on a play about Franz Kafka.

 

VLADO

(Laughs hard)  Kafka?  Kafka would understand this zoo---totally!

 

RHONDA

Vlado: What is the purpose of your call....

 

Beat.

 

VLADO

An hour ago---on the station steps---a man---committed suicide.  Just blew his brains out.  (“Laughs”)  Guess he’d had enough.

 

RHONDA reacts silently.

 

VLADO

Yup, I witnessed it.  And cleaned up---what a mess.  (Beat)  Maybe you’d better take my pulse again?

 

RHONDA

God in Heaven: This siege is an ob-SCENITY!  How did all this happen?

 

VLADO

I like your anger, I really do---though calling on God is futile, as we, uh, discussed....  (Beat)  Rhonda: I’d like to talk to you.  Personally, I really need it.

 

RHONDA

Vlado, I am---not a psychiatrist.

 

VLADO

They’ve abandoned us too.  Look, I don’t plan to commit suicide.  Too many people count on me.  I just like talking to you.  My girlfriend is---fragile.  We’re having “debates”: She wants to escape, I don’t.  My friends---they have their own problems.  And, you seem strong.

 

RHONDA

It’s manufactured.  As a kid I was so shy I had to ask Mom to ask the waiter for water.

 

VLADO

Same with me.  And, big thing: You seem normal.

 

RHONDA

Oh I have my quirks.  I am normal.  Unfortunately.

 

VLADO

I can tell you, especially today: Normal is rare.  Why apologize?

 

RHONDA

Because I’ve been made to.  (Beat)  I need to talk to you too, Vlado.  I’m trying to live a worthy life, write about Life and Death, but: I’m at sea here, I’m not nourished by this---helium.  Weird exalted over normal, me-me-me, unearned angst.  I see the world now as a tale of two tents: one a refugee tent, the other a circus.  And since this world is wired, we must ask, What are we wired to?  When I ask my friends, many of whom have dialed out to cultivate their own gardens, they say, “Here, have a peach.”  But I want to stay involved with the world.  So does my husband.  We still want to “Carpe diem,” seize the day.  I contribute to the helium, with my wit.  But: I yearn for the ultimate.  To rise above.

 

VLADO

“Rise above”: Sounds good to me.

 

RHONDA

(Laughs)  I warn you, my friends say I’m intense, that gardening would improve me---lots.

 

VLADO

Please: Don’t go into the garden.  Be intense with me.

 

RHONDA

(Beat)  O.K.

 

VLADO

And we’ll broadcast your play.  I like a drama about a crime-stopper.  I’ll be your translator.

 

RHONDA

Thank you!  We like art about crime-starters; snipers.  Vlado....: Do you have enough to eat?

 

VLADO

Enough.  Big problem is no water.  Last night I got up to collect the rainwater.  Another problem: At night, with no street lights, you collide with buildings.  (Mimes) “Pardon.”

 

RHONDA

You must hate the snipers....?

 

VLADO

Hate expired---along with all other feeling.  Besides, it’s useless to hate if there’s nothing you can do.  (Beat)  How is it an American cares?

 

RHONDA

I think it’s normal to care, I don’t know how one gets past all that carnage on the news----

 

VLADO

Boy, do you have a lot to learn!

 

RHONDA

(Beat)  When I was five, six years old, I came across photo books my parents happened to have: of the death camps of World War Two---how could human beings do that to other human beings?---and of Negro lynchings, with crowds standing around, including children my age.  How could they laugh?  Those photos gave the “too sensitive” child a hole in the heart.  They force perspective: “You think your problems are bad, tell it to Auschwitz or the lynched man.”  My husband and I have been to Auschwitz.  We felt a sanctity there we don’t feel here, and we fell silent....

 

 

Scene 3, The recovering historian establishes the context---Chaos

 

SPOT on VLADO.

 

VLADO

My new friend asks, with her beautiful anger: “How’d all this happen?”  “Why are you being shot at by former neighbors?”  “How can one human being pull a knife across the throat of another human being?”  How should I know?  I’m a recovering historian.  In an earlier life I had the answers, which as Professor I declaimed at the University---until history exploded.  It’s a historian’s trick, you know: making sense of things.  We can’t do that til after---if we don’t get buried.  My friend says Americans don’t wake up thinking about the American Civil War, and I shot back, “The losers do.”  That was rude, so let me construct a response to her many questions.

 

Please, pull up a rock, be seated.  It’s not comfortable, but the lesson’s short.  Our University is closed, the National Library’s destroyed, but learning still goes on.  O.K.: Two things your TV image (pointing to himself) has learned.  First, apropos the Cold War, Winston Churchill got it right: “When the war of the giants has ended, the war of the pygmies will begin.”  The Cold War ended, let the Games being!  Second, “How can human beings slit throats?”  Because: Politicians tell them to.  These---pygmies get on their TV, radio, “Revenge your martyred prince, your papa---kill, kill, KILL!”  And since their tribes consist of peasants---simple people---they obey: “If it’s on the TV, it must be true, where’s my knife?”  That’s why an independent station is vital: At Zed we do not tell people to kill.  If I had any feeling left, I could hate the manipulators more than the manipulated.  But, I digress....  A statistic, and no lecture’s complete without one of those: In former wars, when battle was confined to battlefields, combatants accounted for 90% of the dead, versus 10% for civilians.  But now, because pygmies and peasants don’t abide by rules of war, that score has flipped: Now it’s Civilians 90, Combatants 10.  Truly total war---which explains all those refugees roaming around, using stairwells as toilets, and why this civilian is so nostalgic for those beautiful rules of war, and not because it was his PhD thesis....  Questions?  Comments?

 

LIGHTS UP on RHONDA.

 

RHONDA

I still want to believe there is still a line.

 

VLADO

It’s so thin, it’s meaningless.  Lots of Americans have erased it, with their guns.

 

RHONDA

Uh-huh....  Is this the time to tell you my husband is involved in conflict prevention?  He’s a national security strategist and conducts games for policy types.  It sounds pretentious, but it’s an attempt to get the big picture, see ahead.

 

VLADO

The “Answer Man.

 

RHONDA

Well, you’re in the volcano, here an overview’s possible----  Vlado: Larry is not an arms merchant.  And I embrace his philosophy: “Don’t worry a problem, work it.”  (Beat)  Larry’s impressed I’ve made an intervention.

 

VLADO

(Beat)  So: What do your husband’s “games” reveal?

 

RHONDA

Escalation---radical.  Quote: “Tell Vlado to get the hell out of Hell.”

 

VLADO

I won’t abandon Sarajevo, I will not abandon Zed, my staff is young, I am “Father.”

 

RHONDA

I also called our State Department.

 

VLADO

You called for me....?

 

RHONDA

One calls the desk officer.  Who said: “Sarajevo’s moment has passed.”  Meaning, no military intervention; in fact I heard lots about “the limits of.”  And numbers: Is it 200,000 dead or “merely” 20,000?  (Beat)  Vlado, I hesitate to ask but: What’s your national identity?

 

VLADO

Not you too!  Jesus, I just want to be seen as a human being!

 

RHONDA

I just want to know, are you minority or majority?  Because that’s what this war is about.

 

VLADO

Not for me or Zed! 

 

[SCENE CONTINUES]

 

 

EXCERPT II: from Scene 7 Act One---showing Vlado empowered by their words.

 

RHONDA

Vlado....: May I write a play about us?  I’ve been typing up our talks, our ultimate dialogues.  They might make people see.  Images haven’t done it, but maybe theatre can.  And unlike Vedran [the friend who just betrayed him], I won’t violate your trust. 

 

VLADO

A Russian poet visiting the snipers: He squeezed off a shot at us, then wrote about “the real thing.”  Write our real thing---it’ll be my shot back!  (Beat)  Our words, Rhonda....: I think about what you say, I think about what we talk about: It brings me---power.  REAL power....

 

LIGHTS OUT on RHONDA.  SOUND of SNIPER FIRE.  VLADO faces in direction of the sniper fire and points to his forehead.

 

VLADO

....POWER!

 

SOUND of SNIPER SHOTS.  VLADO dives out of range.  LIGHTS UP on RHONDA.

 

RHONDA

Did you do what I think you did....?

 

VLADO

(Beat)  Yeah.

 

RHONDA

Would you consider not doing it again....?

 

VLADO

(Beat)  O.K.....

 

LIGHTS OUT on VLADO.  VOICE of Rhonda’s FRIEND #2: “You two are using each other.”  OTHER VOICES: “Yeah.”

 

RHONDA

Yes---and I’ve never been put to such excellent use. 

 

[END OF SCENE]

 

 

EXCERPT III: Scene 10, Act One---Mr. Producer

 

[Previously: The play Rhonda is writing is readily snapped up by “Mr. Producer,” who offers production.  But first, he has some questions....]

 

In this scene Mr. Producer’s input, which Rhonda presents in his voice, is bolded. 

 

RHONDA

We have a problem: Mr. Producer.  “It’s all about development,” he says, “discovering what’s really going on.”  First thing he went after?  “Vlado’s history speech?  Lose it.”

 

VLADO

Whoa!

 

RHONDA

“But Richard, it provides context.  Beyond our circus.  The context is chaos.”  American audiences don’t care about history.  It slows the action.”

 

VLADO

Which Sarajevo hasn’t seen a lot of.

 

RHONDA

“Richard, we Americans have become so self-absorbed.  Sole Superpower, and its theatre, has lost sight of the wider world”---at which point he snores---“a wider world full of suffering, compared to which ours is not much.  Come on, Rich, you like ‘dangerous places,’ let’s knock back the scenery and go there.”

 

VLADO

(Laughs)  Touché completely.

 

RHONDA

“Next,” he says, “character.  We get Vlado, but your character.  An American audience has to identify with you.  You need to be needier.”

 

VLADO

Mr. Producer has a low opinion of Americans.

 

RHONDA

“Richard,” I say, “Vlado values me for my normalcy.  I’m not a neurotic noodle----”

 

VLADO

I wouldn’t talk to you if you were.

 

RHONDA

Exactly.  “Vlado wouldn’t talk to me if I were.”  “But you need to be more human.  Come on: ‘no complaints’?”  “Not compared to Vlado.”  “Uh-uh; pick a concrete problem and elevate it.”  That’s the problem, Richard.  We elevate the hangnail to the Tragic.  I could have cancer----”

 

VLADO

My God, do you?

 

RHONDA

NO.  “Richard, I could have cancer and it wouldn’t equate to Vlado’s---suffering.”  “And another problem,” he says.  “Motivation.  Why’d you call Sarajevo?  Is it because you don’t have kids and you want to inject meaning into your life?”  “Richard!  Any more meaning in my life and I’d tip over, I just have a problem plugging it in here----” “Then why the connection to victims?”

 

VLADO

I am not a victim!

 

RHONDA

“Richard, it was those photos of the death camps---which, if you’re a serious artist, do burn a hole in the heart.”  “No-no, the connection’s gotta be more personal.”

 

VLADO

I’m on CNN, fella---in your face and real personal.

 

RHONDA

“I heard Vlado’s voice on NPR: that’s personal.”  “No; some lack in you, some damage----”

 

VLADO

---No wonder there’s been no intervention----

 

RHONDA

“Did your parents abuse you, during their Cold War?  Were you incested?” “NO!”  Well, it was your parents who labeled you the ‘too-sensitive’ child, right?”  “Richard, I mistakenly got the notion I was the cause of their problems.  But my beloved parents and I worked it out.  You know, sooner or later you forgive your parents and vice-versa----”  “God, you are such a goody!  Even Vlado called you a goody----”

 

VLADO winces “Sorry.”

 

RHONDA

“---You make my teeth itch!”  “Why is that, Richard?  Huh?”  Because ‘decency’ is not dramatic!”  Well, out here in front of my government, it sure feels dramatic.  Richard, in a world gone crazy, the crazies have it easy, it’s the ‘goodies’ who have the uphill, thus dramatic fight.”

 

VLADO

Besides, in chaos, what’s ‘dramatic’?

 

RHONDA

Right.  “In chaos, what’s ‘dramatic’?  Actually, what’s dramatic is the force it’s taking me not to deck you, Dick!----”

 

VLADO reacts: “Oof.”

 

RHONDA

“---That fire is great!  Now, aim it at Vlado.  Crank up the conflict between you two.  Drama is conflict, conflict illuminates----”

 

VLADO

Take it from me, it doesn’t always illuminate.

 

RHONDA

“Richard: I can’t pick a fight in Hell, I can’t.  I made Vlado a vow of honor----  At which point he scoffs.  “Everyone, Richard, even ‘women of distinction,’ yearns for honor----  He walks out of the room.  (Calling)  “You do too.  You bad boys always come around in the end----  Dammit, work with me, please!”

 

VLADO

And?

 

RHONDA

He roars back into the room.  “O.K., ‘woman of distinction,’ let’s cut to the bone....’” (stops).  Actually Vlado, I can take care of it----

 

VLADO

Oh no, I want to hear this.

 

RHONDA

(Beat)  “Are you calling because you’re not young anymore and you’re afraid you’re losing your looks and on the phone you’re invisible?”

 

VLADO

Jesus....

 

RHONDA

“Thanks for buying into our culture’s lack of regard for the aging woman,” I say.  “Hey,” he says, “it’s out there.”

 

VLADO

Only in America.

 

RHONDA

“Vlado values me for my---vintage.”  (Beat...)  “Heck, in the looks department I thought I was doing O.K.  Then again, in the context of chaos----”

 

VLADO

I got a good report.

 

RHONDA

“---in the context of chaos, looks are totally irrelev----”  You did?

 

VLADO

Voice of America (laughs).  [Vlado is a stringer for VOA.]

 

RHONDA

(Beat)  Vice-versa yourself.  End of topic, Vlado, O.K.?

 

VLADO

(Laughing)  O.K., O.K....

 

RHONDA

Next: He goes after Larry.  “Make Larry more military, more----”  “Bullet-head?” I say.  “But Larry’s more subtle than a cliché.  “Then,” he says, make Larry the jealous husband.  Yes it’s cliché, but you and Vlado have a nice little relationship going, Larry’s got to be ticked.”  “Larry knows I wasn’t looking for action, he feels I’ve found my proper subject: Sarajevo.  Larry trusts me.  Our marriage is based on trust.”  “Take it from a producer, no audience will buy it about trust.”  “The well-married will.  There are more good marriages than theatre shows us.”  “O.K. then...: If your marriage is so good....”

 

VLADO smiles.

 

RHONDA

“...how come you’re susceptible, huh?”  “Well, Richard, I’m not stone.  Feelings---happen.  Feelings happen, romantic---or lethal.  The question becomes, How to handle these feelings?”

 

VLADO

That is the question.

 

RHONDA

Indeed it is.  Observing the line.

 

VLADO

Indeed.  (Erupts in laughter)  And this siege used to be so boring!

 

THEY laugh.  Then RHONDA sobers.

 

RHONDA

This---deadly siege....

 

VLADO falls silent.

 

RHONDA

As we parted, I asked Richard, “Tell me: Why’d you pick this project?”  “Because,” he said, it’s raw truth.”  Then he says, “That went well, I thought.  Cheers.”

 

VLADO

(Beat)  Your culture, Rhonda....  My condolences. 

 

[END OF SCENE]




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