“Our Secrets” is a play about totalitarian oppression, pedophilia, and Hungarian folk music. It’s nearly two hours long, with no intermission, and performed in Hungarian with English supertitles.
Sounds, um, challenging, right? It’s also pretty terrific. Which together make it just about the most ArtsEmerson thing ever.
The production by the Hungarian troupe Béla Pintér and Company begins in Budapest, 1980. István, his wife, Kata, his friend Imre and Imre’s girlfriend, Bea, are all part of a lively traditional folk music and dance movement endorsed by the communist government because it is deemed safely unsubversive. The men drink and dance like wild and crazy guys, but they have dangerous secrets. István has become sexually obsessed with his 7-year-old stepdaughter. Imre is editing an underground opposition paper, unbeknownst to his ambitious, patriotic wife. Then someone bugs István’s therapist’s office . . . the secret police come around . . . things get complicated. And dark, dark, dark. Perhaps surprisingly, the 115 minutes fly by.
Although it’s set in pre-Internet times, it’s not hard to connect “Our Secrets” to our presidential politics, with all its covert recordings and talk of perversions. At least one audience member wore her freshly knitted pink protest hat, and a character’s description of Moscow as “megalomaniacal” drew a knowing laugh. But playwright and director Pintér seems to be aiming less for topical resonance than a deep look at what happens whenever governments repress free expression, and sex and power get tangled together.
Some excellent performances are needed to balance the appalling scenes with the surprising amounts of humor in the script. Zoltán Friedenthal bears by far the heaviest load as István and makes us feel something for this increasingly tortured soul, even if “sympathy” is not quite the right word. Pintér himself is funny and real as the swinging Imre. A special nod goes to Eszter Csákányi, who plays both the cardigan-clad therapist Dr. Elvira and the mustachioed government creep Comrade Pánczél, in the kind of turn that would go to Larry Coen or Tommy Derrah in Boston. (Three onstage musicians double as actors, and some actors play instruments.)
It’s a fascinating artistic decision to make the protagonist of the story a pedophile rather than a hero. It’s worth noting that István’s stepdaughter and Imre’s son, a precocious piano prodigy, are played by petite adult actresses, Éva Enyedi and Angéla Stefanovics. They’re convincing enough to make the sex scenes disturbing anyway. Eventually the emotions on display explode (or is it implode?) in an awful act of violence. This is definitely an adults-only production.
The troupe takes the play to New York next, to the Baryshnikov Arts Center, and small tweaks might be in order. A few supertitles could use an edit for clarity here and there. A climactic scene between the struggling István and the piano prodigy ends ambiguously. And the whole troupe seems to rush through a darkly funny postscript set at a government self-esteem pageant, so that it’s easy to miss some of the final twists.
But “Our Secrets,” which runs through Sunday, is potent and challenging theater for Americans who may feel themselves slipping off what Comrade Pánczél calls “a treadmill of good compromises.”
Written and directed by Béla Pintér. Production by Béla Pintér and Company. In Hungarian with English supertitles. Presented by ArtsEmerson at Robert J. Orchard Stage, Paramount Center, Boston. Through Jan. 22. Tickets: $10-$80, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org
Joel Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org