Two shows have varying degrees of success with a mess.

Life During Wartime 

Two shows have varying degrees of success with a mess.

We don't get many chances to make an acquaintance as fascinating as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, the German transvestite who not only survived the Nazis while decked out in dresses but also made it her mission during East Berlin's occupation to preserve what she could of a culture ravaged by war and the Soviets.

Plus, she ran a gay cabaret in her basement.

A chance to hang with her is reason enough to recommend the Unicorn's I Am My Own Wife, which consists mostly of von Mahlsdorf chatting at us. Her monologues come mainly from interviews and correspondence with Doug Wright, the playwright, and they sparkle. Her soul is strong, her tastes delicate, her every word as precisely measured as the seconds on the clocks she collects. Robert Brand embodies her with grace and complexity, and his performance is something rare: a subtle triumph. He examines instead of idealizes her, presents her as human, allows some of her exaggerations but probes at others.

A shame, then, that the play itself (for which Wright won a Pulitzer) flags.

The second act is given to controversy over von Mahlsdorf's possible cooperation with Soviet authorities: Did she give up a friend to make her difficult life easier? Wright agonizes over this, but he doesn't seem to have asked her about it himself. So he dramatizes it, which forces Brand to do a one-man-band take on Germany's media coverage, playing opinion columnists and TV hosts and even telling a bad David Hasselhoff joke. The intimate story we've been enjoying — a playwright trying to make sense of this too-good-to-be-true character — is lost.

Perhaps sensing that the material has slipped from him, Wright includes scenes of himself telling us he doesn't know what to make of von Mahlsdorf, almost apologizing for the play he's written. His interruptions annoy. At first we get shtick about feeling silly in German class and complaints about his grant money running out. Then come his vague but passionate speeches about how important all of this is. Even with the benefit of Brand's sympathetic portrayal, the playwright comes off like Richard Dreyfuss carving the potatoes in Close Encounters — he's after something, but he doesn't know what.

Still, the play's heart, Brand's performance and the Unicorn's tasteful presentation result in a winner. Occasional swells of music from von Mahlsdorf's gramophones heighten the most moving passages, and director Cynthia Levin has managed to make Brand's every transformation clear. Through her subtle staging, we always know who von Mahlsdorf is. She seems to know better than the playwright does.

Down at Union Station, the up-and-coming Borogrove Theatre Company is also making the best of a show whose author mistakes thematic confusion for rich ambiguity. Paige McLemore's Blink Twice for Her, a world premiere, crackles with high concepts, philosophical inquiry, hit-or-miss one-liners, and at least one too many catfights. Problem is, the jokes about Florence Henderson don't sharpen the monologues about Aristotle, and discussions about whether happiness is possible fail to illuminate the long scenes of actresses chasing and tackling each other. Interesting chunks hang in the narrative like fruit suspended in a Jell-O salad. Watching, I found myself thinking the same thing I do at family Thanksgiving: Would someone please blend this?

The premise is amusing. Two ex-girlfriends of an academic cad run into each other in his living room, where he is recuperating in a full-body cast, without a nurse, not hooked into machines, less than a week after the bus accident that knocked him into traction. Ridiculous, but we're cued to suspend disbelief by his mummified form, which looks like a papier-mâché scare from a junior high haunted house.

Tina Connolly's Quinlan is herself a professor of classics, with all the neuroses and sarcasm such characters hide behind in plays. At first, she's honored to help brush up the invalid's dissertation, but soon she feels used. Connolly's body language is often funny, and she has some great moments as she idly destroys the cad's paperwork. Her dialogue, though, is overcooked, and it comes out in such a squeaky rush that we hardly get to laugh at the many funny bits.

Liz, the other ex, may be impossible, despite strong work from Alyson Schacherer. The character is an outgoing beauty who plays dumb but reads Proust to better herself. She has ordered a hit on the invalid, she's marrying a wealthy senator strictly for his money, and she has invented a machine that reads subconscious thoughts, translates them into English and spits them out on receipt tape.

The playwright asks us to believe that this brain-reading machine could exist, but after she encourages us to make the leap from straight drama to this heightened reality, she clings to the Earth. Instead of marveling at this miracle or questioning how Liz came to create such a thing, Quinlan passes the climax watching workers gut an old house across the street. Yes, there's some sad metaphor lurking beneath such everyday destruction, but concentrating on that instead of the play's daring inventions is a failure of nerve and scale.

The show is half-formed; shaped longer, worked over, it could be great. But if this is art holding true to the sloppy disappointment that life often is, I prefer life, which at least doesn't charge 15 bucks a head.

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