Give Adolf Hitler his due. As a world conqueror, he might not have been tremendously successful. As a zany madcap, he's downright inspiring.

Give Adolf Hitler his due. As a world conqueror, he might not have been tremendously successful. As a zany madcap, he’s downright inspiring.

George Tabori’s play, based on the mustached one’s prison memoir, “Mein Kampf ,” explores a less public side to the Fuehrer — an impressionistic, existential take on his days as a young art student living in a Viennese flophouse. Dubbed a “theological farce” by its producers, it’s a slapstick pastiche that hovers between outright camp and grim historical prescience.

But the play can’t decide whether it’s funny orfearsome — Tabori wants both. As one who escaped the Holocaust, but saw it take his father’s life, he finds humor in the darkest of episodes. Characters are as likely to break into song as they are to start crying.

And while the laugh-through-the-pain approach works on an intellectual level, it only muddies things under Michael Schlitt’s direction.

The piece is closer to “The Producers” than “Schindler’s List.” Plot follows Hitler’s failure at art and his transformation into a magnetic politico who believed in a master race. But along the way, Tabori unleashes the blackest of humors in sketching a love/hate dialectic between the pubescent Hitler and the Jewish book salesman, Shlomo Herzl, who teaches and nurtures him.

Hitler (Joseph Grimm) initially comes off harmless and needy as a depressed young fellow who simply can’t paint very well. He’s a pitiful product of his surroundings, borrowing wardrobe and manners from Shlomo before stealing what may be most galling, Shlomo’s own Kampf, or struggle.

Herzl is ultimately the one who tells a sobbing Hitler that perhaps art isn’t the right path for him. Why not politics?

The irony hangs like cheesecloth and Tabori can’t help but indulge. He loads the script with oblique symbols — Shlomo’s ever-suffering aid to Hitler clearly alludes to the theory that the Jews were partners in the horrors that befell them during the Holocaust. His German girlfriend Gretchen (representing German countryfolk), who literally strips down to please Shlomo, at first sides with Hitler, but ultimately sees him for the mass murderer he will become.

Director Schlitt divides the time between broad physical comedy and existential questions, such as: How did this man come to be who he came to be? But he unfortunately doesn’t give the play what any farce, theological or otherwise, needs: timing.

The result is a litany of clunkers that might have worked under a sharper eye. “Hitler,” says one character, musing on the name. “That’s funny, you don’t look Jewish.” Then, after being lent a coat by Shlomo, Hitler promises: “I shall buy you an oven so that you shall be warm.” The cast falls just short of stopping the action and telling the audience to laugh.

As Shlomo, Michael Neimand echoes a young Jerry Lewis, all gangly arms, legs and a nasal whine. He wears his earnestness on his tattered sleeve, but loses interest as the epitome of the Jewish plight. Kate Mulligan nicely brings Germany’s wide-eyed pre-war innocence to Gretchen.

Joseph Grimm is deliciously Pythonesque in his Hitler, oblivious to the obvious and struggling to look like he’s in control. Forget that he plays most of the first act without pants.

Richard Hoover’s flophouse set is an alluring construct of wooden slats, with bed alcoves, bookshelves and small kitchens built into the walls. He, too, indulges with a huge oven that dominates upstage center.

Doug Smith’s lighting is spotty, awkwardly brightening areas of the stage, but mostly passable. Costumes by Alix Hester are predictably drab, in a Viennese peasant sort of way.

Mein Kampf

(Actors Gang Theatre, Hollywood; 99 seats; $ 15 top)

Production

An Actors Gang production of a play in two acts by George Tabori; director, Michael Schlitt; producer, Mark Seldis; exec producer, Tim Robbins.

Creative

Musical director, David Robbins; lighting, Douglas D. Smith; costumes, Alix Hester; sets , Richard Hoover; choreography, Adrienne Armor. Opened Aug. 13, 1994; reviewed Aug. 28; runs through Sept. 17. Running time: 2 hrs., 30 min.

Cast

Adolf Hitler ... Joseph Grimm Himmlisch ... Gary Kelley Gretchen ... Kate Mulligan Shlomo Herzl ... Michael Neimand Lobkowitz ... Steven M. Porter Frau Death ... Yeardley Smith Chorus: Lawson Clarke, Joseph Daley, David Fruechting, Justin Gorence, Greg White.
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