“Blitzkrieg over Off Broadway”
In case you haven’t noticed, Off Broadway is currently being bombed by a mini-blitz of Nazi-oriented plays. Of the last four shows I visited, three labor under the sign of the swastika: The Winning Side, a biodrama about Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun; Hitler’s Tasters, concerning young women testing Hitler’s food for poison; and the current one, Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night, an adaptation of the eponymous author’s 1962 novel about an American double agent, simultaneously working for the Nazis and us. Only the first of these wasn’t a disappointing dud.
Mother Night is a morally complex satire that presents the life of a fictional American named Howard W. Campbell (Gabriel Grilli), born in 1912, whose parents moved to Berlin when he was 11. Becoming fluent in German, he continued to live in Germany, where he became a successful writer and dramatist.
He was then recruited during World War II by Paul Joseph Goebbels’s (Dave Sikula) propaganda machine to broadcast pro-Nazi, antisemitic diatribes to the Americans, programs that also served as inspiration to their Nazi listeners. What makes this already unusual situation even more intriguing is that he was actually serving the Americans, transmitting information of which he himself was ignorant through coded coughs and stumbles in his delivery.
|Eric Rice, Matthew Van Oss, Dared Wright. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
Brian Katz has directed his own adaptation of the novel for the Custom Made Theatre Company, at 59E59 Theaters. It’s a mostly faithful, heavily expository, ploddingly undramatic version that turns Vonnegut’s metafictional narrative into a metatheatrical play. The premise shows Campbell writing his memoirs, both narrating via direct address and enacting the events, while waiting in an Israeli prison to be tried for his Nazi activities. A fellow inmate awaiting his own judgment is Adolf Eichmann (Matthew Van Oss).
|Dared Wright, Gabriel Grilli, Eric Rice, Trish Lindstrom, Andrea Gallo. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
The story encompasses Campbell’s connection to a CIA operative named Francis Wirtanen (Andrea Gallo), who always shows up to get Campbell out of serious difficulties. Oddly, Wirtanen, a man, is portrayed by an actress with no pretense she’s anything but a woman. Perhaps this unconvincing gender shift derives—as per the novel—from Campbell’s code name for Wirtanen, his Blue Fairy Godmother.
Other principals—played by six actors juggling multiple roles—include Campbell’s beautiful, actress wife, Helga Noth (Trish Lindstrom), and her younger sister, Resi. After Helga is presumed dead, Resi finds Campbell in his crummy Greenwich Village attic, where he accepts her story that she’s Helga herself. It’s one of several plot twists you have to buy as part of Vonnegut’s semi-realistic method.
|Gabriel Grilli, Andrea Gallo. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
Among the many others we meet are Karl Kraft (Sikula), an alcoholic Russian agent with a passion for painting who’s in cahoots with Resi to transport Campbell to Moscow; Bernard O’Hare (Dared Wright), the American soldier who captured Campbell in 1945 and seeks to wreak vengeance on him; and Dr. Lionel Jason David Jones (Eric Rice), a dentist who heads a fascistic, white supremacist organization seeking to use Campbell for its own racist purposes.
|Gabriel Grilli, Trish Lindstrom. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
While there’s a lot here that makes Night Mother reflective of today’s aggravated political and social concerns—think Russian espionage, white nationalism, racial hatred and antisemitism, hatred of foreigners, and media manipulation—relevance alone is insufficient to maintain dramatic interest. Katz has stuffed so much incident into his plot it eventually becomes hard to follow, especially when accompanied by thought-provoking, if pontificating speeches that need the leisure of reading to fully assimilate but get buried in the onstage hurly-burly. It’s another reminder of the dictum that individual dramatic incidents don’t necessarily add up to a dramatic play.
Vonnegut offers various interesting questions regarding Campbell’s moral dilemma; there’s even a coda with several of the author’s deliberately innocuous answers. But Campbell is such a cipher, even he doesn’t seem to know where he stands, or whether or not he was himself a Nazi.
He argues, at one point, that the reason he undertook to spew such vile garbage was because he’s such a ham he couldn’t resist the temptation of showing how convincing he could be. When he’s forced to wonder what he would have done had the Nazis, who considered him an ally, won the war, he’s uncertain. Even the act he takes to resolve his guilt is clouded in moral ambiguity.
A more concise, verbally trimmed, and dramatically sharpened script would have helped, just as would a better production. Katz occasionally makes flailing attempts at stylized business but he generally sticks with realism when what’s required throughout is creatively innovative theatricality. (And a wordy script running less than two hours and 20 minutes.)
|Trish Lindstrom, Gabriel Grilli. Photo: Carol Rosegg.|
Nor does the design team do much to heighten things, with a neutral set by Daniel Bilodeau showing a room with rough, irregular planking that doesn’t correspond to any of the play’s locales. Adam Gearhart’s lighting, even in the more theatricalized moments, is little more than ordinary, and Zöe Allen’s costumes make little impression.
Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night will soon be joined by another Vonnegut work, Happy Birthday, Wanda June, in a return engagement of a recent production in which this blog found little to celebrate. Hopefully, it will be improved enough to overcome the perception that Vonnegut and the theatre make weak bedfellows. Thus far, though, Vonnegut seems better suited to film, including the dramatically potent 1996 version of the book, from which this preview clip shows a fiery Nick Nolte as Howard Campbell. There's more passion in the clip's disturbing opening than anything on view at 59E59's Theater B.
59E59 Theaters/Theater B
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through November 3