“Spy” must be one of those fantasy professions little boys dream of for their fathers. It’s got it all: sleuthing, risk, adventure, a hint of romance à la James Bond… Luckier than most in that respect, Lars Jan really did have a father who was a spy, or at least that’s what Lars Jan believes. Henryk, a Pole who emigrated to Boston after the close of WWII, left a few clues before he died, and Jan followed these to Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance, a government body created to investigate crimes committed under Nazi and Communist rule. Sure enough, Jan learned in the Institute’s archives that when Henryk returned to Poland briefly in 1958, his relatives’ phones were wiretapped, though Jan surmises that the banalities they discussed, like Grandma’s health and Easter preparations, were just banter to cover up Henryk’s activities as a Cold War operative. Everyone has a story, they say, and Lars Jan was born with his.
The Institute of Memory (TIMe) is Jan’s tribute to his father, the Polish émigré who flirted with the CIA and lived a guarded life in a makeshift bunker on Harvard Square but who also never recognized his infant son, ignored him mostly over the years, and refused to see him altogether at the end of his life. Spy and father occupy very different zones in Jan’s imagination, clearly, and the show walks a fine line between homage and patricide, in both cases however relying on a pseudo-documentary approach that recounts the life of this failed father figure in minute – and taxing – detail.
Jan adopts a fragmented narrative to assemble Henryk’s life events, as if the impossibility of accurately knowing him was a given. Although the show is entirely Jan’s creation from writing to set design, he passes narrative duties to Andrew Schneider and Sonny Valicenti who, in white suits and shoes on a mirror-like set, form a smooth-talking duo that passes back and forth the roles of Henryk and Jan, relating minor and major events of both spy and father, jumping forwards and backwards on a timeline that stretches roughly between 1958 and 2007. The glossy set, anchored by a “kinetic light sculpture,” brought to mind for me an abstract vanity table and, at times, a house of mirrors, so that I wondered whether Jan’s point of interest isn’t really himself. But like the neon tubes that at times outline Henryk’s apartment building or Boston General Hospital, Jan tries to frame his father’s life in reassuring categories to explain a disturbing trajectory, while bathing his unwilling progenitor in a forced glow, of longing and what-might-have-been.
There is an aura of legend and great deeds that hangs heavily over everything here, as if Jan were really hoping to tell a John le Carré-style thriller: key dates flash self-importantly in huge characters on a screen, lending the story the weight of History with no irony, while Jan gloats that his father was tortured by the Nazis (you know, he adds, “the Nazi Nazis!”) However, what his father actually did as a special agent is never revealed. As a Cold War spy tale, The Institute of Memory must be the dullest one ever written.
A larger issue is posed, however, by the narrative tone. Like a child who tells his parents of the wrongs committed against him on the playground, sure of receiving his listeners’ immediate sympathy, Jan also assumes himself to be a sympathetic narrator, just by dint of his sufferings as a mostly fatherless child. We understand why Jan wants to know more about his mysterious pater familias, but despite some hollows attempts at jocularity, the show never earns our complicity so much as take it as a given. Some hagiographic flourishes like x-rays and MRI’s of Henryk’s elderly body, inexplicable shifts into a British accent and some murky textual references, don’t do much to bring us in.
The Institute of Memory was created by Jan’s Early Morning Opera, a self-described performance and art “lab” that makes “integrated, expressive use of emerging technologies in live performance.” The program notes explain that the “sculpture” signals typewriter keystrokes, but how a viewer is supposed to make that connection is anyone’s guess. Some cool 3-D pixellated graphics of Harvard Square scroll on the screen, an approximation perhaps of Jan’s visual memories. But the loop of Henryk’s x-rayed bones feels gratuitous and begs the question of what we are meant to see and understand anywhere in his story as it is related here.
Like its name implies, The Institute of Memory has grand ambitions, and like that adage about institutions, a story is only as good as the people in it. Jan and Henryk make a bleak and sad pair but their tale is hardly an adventure, even one through the human heart and mind, which is always at the heart of the best stories. It’s said that the mark of a good spy is knowing how to keep a secret, something Henryk would have known. I came away from The Institute of Memory wishing that, in his telling of his father’s tale, Jan had learned to be a better one too.