Charlotte von Mahlsdorf may have survived the Nazis and the Commies, too, but can she weather the savage economics of a bruising Broadway season? That's the question facing this quietly spellbinding solo show, which has moved to the big time following a successful summer run at Playwrights Horizons.

Charlotte von Mahlsdorf may have survived the Nazis and the Commies, too, but can she weather the savage economics of a bruising Broadway season? That’s the question facing this quietly spellbinding solo show, which has moved to the big time following a successful summer run at Playwrights Horizons.

The relatively intimate Lyceum is the ideal Broadway house for Doug Wright’s meditation on the mysteries of a tumultuous life: The theater proudly wears the patina of age, a fact that von Mahlsdorf, who devoted her life to the salvation and caretaking of antique furniture, surely would appreciate. Whether a large audience will appreciate this smartly collated history of a peculiar life is harder to gauge. But the signs are promising: Moises Kaufman’s exquisitely crafted production loses no impact in a decidedly larger theater, and none of the fall season’s new plays have scored a hit, either with critics or audiences.

Perhaps the best news is that a new home has not tempted the evening’s sole performer, Jefferson Mays, to pump up the volume in his beautifully contained performance. He still relies on small effects to enrich his interpretations of a good dozen characters. With just a slight but striking change in vocal emphasis or coloring, a new tilt to the head or set of the shoulders, Mays sets aside one character and slips easily into the next. It’s an admirably unmannered perf — a virtuoso piece of acting that rigorously eschews flashy effects.

The central role is von Mahlsdorf herself, an outwardly timid transvestite, well into her dotage when we meet her (the feminine pronoun seems most appropriate), who reveals a history of quiet but determined fortitude in the face of a brutal buffeting by the forces of 20th-century history. As a teenager he took placidly to cross-dressing, with the approval of a lesbian aunt. Charlotte’s gleaming, benevolent, slightly vacant gaze and apologetic smile barely falter as she calmly recalls the night this youngster turned the tables on his violently abusive Nazi father and beat him to death with a rolling pin.

The boy earned an early release from a sentence for the killing when a Soviet bomb fell on the prison where he was incarcerated. But Charlotte’s saviors soon became her persecutors. When Berlin was divided, Charlotte and her fellow homosexuals were marked for persecution by their Soviet overlords and forced to go underground. Literally, in Charlotte’s case, as the basement of her house, a museum devoted to furniture and artifacts from a particular period in German history, was turned into a clandestine gay speakeasy.

That this man in pearls and skirts managed to survive, and thrive, under two of the most oppressive regimes of the 20th century is the mystery that intrigued Wright. “It seems to me you’re an impossibility. You shouldn’t even exist,” says the playwright, whose interaction with von Mahlsdorf is the focus of the play’s text. And perhaps she was too good to be true: As von Mahlsdorf’s history became known when the Berlin Wall fell, her secret interaction with the hated East German secret police was revealed, and soon her whole life was being called into question.

The play gradually evolves from being a celebratory recounting of a fascinating life to a troubled exploration of the slippery nature of truth and the difficulty of keeping one’s moral bearings in a world in which survival depended on compromise. The allure of Charlotte’s story, as she tells it, is hard for Wright to let go of: “I need to believe that things like this are true,” the playwright says.

Wright’s intrusions into the play are, in fact, its weakest moments: Gushy at first, he later plays the professor, providing neat interpretations the audience might better be left to discover for itself. But these are generally unobtrusive, thanks to Mays’ understated delivery and Kaufman’s uncommonly delicate and artful staging.

Derek McLane has re-created his haunting set design from the Off Broadway staging. The foreground is occupied by a stylized depiction of von Mahlsdorf’s parlor. Looming against the back wall are carefully arranged rows of antique furniture, clocks and gramophones gleaming in the soft glow of David Lander’s lighting.

The play’s odd title is a quote from the central character, in response to his mother’s anxious suggestion that a cross-dressing young man will not have an easy time finding a spouse. But the answer, in the context of the contradictory tales of von Mahlsdorf’s life, carries a faint chill. As she freely admits, Charlotte was devoted above all to her museum and her furniture; men came a distant third in her esteem. It may have been just this eccentric sense of priorities that allowed Charlotte to pick her way placidly through the minefields of 20th-century history while so many others were swept away.

I Am My Own Wife

Lyceum Theater; 704 seats; $85 top

Production

A Delphi Prods. presentation, in association with Playwrights Horizons, of a play in one act by Doug Wright. Directed by Moises Kaufman.

Creative

Set, Derek McLane; costumes, Janice Pytel; lighting, David Lander; sound, Andre J. Pluess; production stage manager, Andrea (Spook) Testani. Opened Dec. 3, 2003. Reviewed Dec. 1. Running time: 1 HOUR, 50 MIN.

Cast

With: Jefferson Mays.
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