Recently restored as artistic director of the Actors’ Gang, the company he helped found in 1981, Tim Robbins has selected two plays to run in repertory that are purposefully self-conscious and are, at least in part, about the theater itself. It’s as if Robbins felt the need for the company to turn inward, to re-examine its social and aesthetic objectives by investigating works that questioned the theatrical purpose in different contexts. The first, directed by George Bigot, was Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” and Robbins himself has directed its companion, “Mephisto,” based on the novel by Klaus Mann and adapted by Ariane Mnouchkine. One must hope that members of the company find deep meaning in these solipsistic presentations that will pay off later, because in the case of “Mephisto,” the result is shrill and tedious.
It may in part be a case of the wrong play at the wrong moment. After Sept. 11, almost all plays, particularly those dealing with politics and history, take on a changed resonance. Some that weren’t relevant before become so, while others seem mired in an era that’s past. “Mephisto” falls into this latter category, engaging in debates — capitalism vs. communism, working for change from inside the system vs. outside, compromising one’s artistic principles for the sake of success — that seem like the conflicts of another time and place, not the ones currently confronting the artistic community or the public in general.
The central figure in the Faustian “Mephisto” is actor Hendrik Hofgen (Ned Bellamy), a leading player with a Hamburg theater company who announces happily in the opening moments that Hitler’s coup attempt of 1923 has failed and that the would-be dictator has been jailed. By the end of the play, 10 years later, he has become Hitler’s lackey, the greatest star of the German stage and a wreck of a man.
His colleagues who refused to compromise, such as the devout communist Otto Ulrich (V. J. Foster), the more politically moderate director Magnus Gottchalk (Brian Powell), even the National Socialist believer Hans Miklas (Joseph Grimm), have at least retained their dignity.
The reason for the shrillness of this piece is that the characters are defined by their politics and not the other way around. The slightly Brechtian style that Robbins employs, in which it feels that characters are giving speeches even when they’re not, makes this even more obvious. It works for some of the performances — Patti Tippo is delightful and believable as the bigger-than-life Jewish actress — but it inhibits others. Bellamy’s performance is too one-note to make the subtleties of the character’s arc work.
The best moments in “Mephisto” involve the underground theater movement, a radical theater referred to as a Peppermill, addressing the immediate politics of the moment. Presented in a wonderfully stylized comic format, these pieces are too few and far between, but they do inject needed life into this overlong eveningfilled with a stale sentimentalism and peppered with pretentiousness.