The New York Times
Celestine Bohlen

This week in New York, Oleg Tabakov will complete a circle begun in Moscow in 1958 when, as a young actor, he had two parts in My Big Land, a play about a Jewish father and son, written by the poet Aleksandr Galich.

Those were the days of the Khrushchev Spring, but the thaw was apparently not warm enough to allow the Galich play to go on. Like other plays in Russian history, My Big Land was closed before it ever had a chance to open.

Mr. Tabakov, the well-known director, founder of a popular Moscow actors' studio and actor (movie audiences will remember him in the title role of Oblomov), recalled in a recent interview here the day two censors – one from the Central Committee of the Communist Party, the other from local party headquarters – came to the Sovremennik Theater for the dress rehearsal.

"These two women could not say in so many words that it was forbidden because it had Jewish characters," Mr. Tabakov said. "That would have seemed too aggressive an explanation. So instead they said the play was too complicated, too difficult artistically for such a young troupe."

A Hit 30 Years Later

Three decades later, Mr. Tabakov, now 54 years old, has had his revenge. He quietly gave the play to his students at the Moscow Arts Theater drama school for their "diploma" production, and last spring shepherded it onto the smaller stage of the Russian theater founded by Stanislavsky. It played to sold-out audiences. Now Mr. Tabakov and his 20 students will give 6 performances of the Galich play at the Public Theater, starting tonight and running through Friday.

The three-act play follows Abram Shvartz and his son David from the town of Tulchin in the late 1920s through to World War II, when the father, with other Jews, is rounded up from the Tulchin ghetto, then under German occupation, and killed. The son, who had moved to Moscow to study the violin, returns to Tulchin as a lieutenant in the advancing Red Army, and realizes that despite all that has happened, this town will always be home to him.

The theme is struck in the play's opening scene when Wolf, a family friend who had emigrated to Palestine, returns to Tulchin in 1929. He tells a disbelieving young David that what he found was not the Promised Land, but a foreign land. "What is Zion to me, and what am I to Zion, the bookbinder Wolf from the Russian town of Tulchin?", Wolf asks. In a cruel twist typical of the times, Wolf is arrested in 1937 as Stalin's purges begin.

The play's performance here – to be done in Russian, with English translation via earphones – is likely to attract many from New York's large community of Soviet-born Jewish émigrés. But Mr. Tabakov said its themes were universal.

"The Meaning of Homeland"

"I think what is very important in this play is not any political double meaning, but the discovery of the meaning of homeland," Mr. Tabakov said. "It is not about whether or not to emigrate: that is not what the play is about. It is the old story of the return of the prodigal son. I like to think of it as polyphonic – a drama with many voices, many themes and many meanings."

For Mr. Tabakov, the reward in staging Galich's play lies in its significance to a new generation – not coincidentally, the same idea that 30 years ago set off alarms in the heads of the two censors. "To me, the importance of the play goes beyond its nostalgic character – the mere fact that it was once forbidden and is now allowed," he said. "My students – the oldest is 25 – see it as a contemporary commentary on their own lives. They are acting about themselves, not about people who lived in some ancient, historic time shrouded in mist. After 30 years, I wanted to show it to their generation, a generation that looks on those years as something that happened on Mars."

In the original version, there was a fourth act that moved on through the 1950s – to the launching of the first Sputnik and the release of Stalin's prisoners from the camps. But Mr. Tabakov has dropped it, saying it had been tagged on by Galich to pass the Khrushchev-era censors.

Ousted from Writers' Union

Galich, whose real name was Ginzburg, was expelled from the Soviet Writers' Union in 1971 because of the biting satire that laced his work. He left the Soviet Union in the mid-1970s, and died in Paris in 1977. His ballads – about camp life, everyday hardships and the stupidities of official hypocrisy – remained taboo in the Soviet Union until recently, when they, too, along with the works of other dissident writers, were redeemed by Moscow's latest thaw.

The play is also a tribute to Galich, himself a veteran of Stalin's camps, who was described by Mr. Tabakov as a lively, engaging man who wrote the truth at a time when that was a dangerous occupation. "Galich was one of those who stayed human in an inhuman era," Mr. Tabakov said. "He wrote about real people, and he did it because he had to, like a pregnant woman has to give birth."

Although Mr. Tabakov is best known in the United States for his beguiling performance as Oblomov, literature's most famous lazy character, in the Soviet Union his range – from comical to classical – has established him as one of the country's most popular actors onstage and onscreen.

Mr. Tabakov was already popular in 1974 when he decided to change course and step outside his successful career at the Sovremennik Theater. "There comes a moment in every profession when, having mastered what you can do, you want to pass it to someone else to continue," he said.

For Mr. Tabakov, the answer was teaching; the first step was to find the students. He auditioned 3,500 Moscow schoolchildren, aged 14 and 15, and chose 49 to enroll in his new school. When they finished a two-year course, he selected a dozen – actors and directors – to be part of his new young troupe.

The mid-1970s, the peak of Brezhnevite stagnation, was not a good time for experimentation of any kind, but Mr. Tabakov managed to find an empty basement in the Bauman region of Moscow and turn what had been a hangout for alcoholics into a small theater with 96 seats.

The first performance, in the fall of 1978, was of a Soviet classic, How Steel Was Tempered by Nikolai Ostrovsky, but as Mr. Tabakov recalled, "not the usual interpretation." This novel production, and others that followed, did not endear Mr. Tabakov to city authorities, but given his prestige and popularity among critics and foreign visitors, they made no move to shut his basement studio down.

Nor, however, did they give him the official status he needed to collect money and pay salaries. Only in 1986 – when the new openness was in full swing – did Mr. Tabakov's studio get the official recognition it needed. This summer, just as he was leaving for the United States, he learned he had been given permission to build a real theater – with 150 seats, complete with a drama school.

Last week he was directing American students from the Acting Company in scenes from Chekhov plays – another part of an exchange, arranged by Margot Harley, the executive producer of the Acting Company, that brought his Moscow Art Theater students here for two weeks of classes at the Juilliard School and took 24 Juilliard students to Moscow last April for a three-week visit.