Beautifully written and acted with elegant artistry by Jim Dale and William Atherton, this two-hander lands with the grace of a butterfly to deliver the sting of a wasp. Set in 1932, when America was in the grip of the great Depression and Hitler was just coming to power, play follows a friendship which gradually erodes under the political ideology of the period.

Beautifully written, handsomely staged and acted with elegant artistry by Jim Dale and William Atherton, this two-hander lands with the grace of a butterfly to deliver the sting of a wasp. Set in 1932, when America was in the grip of the great Depression and Hitler was just coming to power in Germany, play follows the arc of a friendship whose bedrock of affection and respect gradually erodes under the pernicious political ideology of the period. Faithful to the epistolary style of the original story (banned in Nazi Germany, but a bestseller elsewhere), dramatization positions its two stars on opposite sides of the stage, composing and reading letters that turn from tenderness to savagery before signing off with a cunning plot coup.

Kathrine Kressmann Taylor’s novella about the deteriorating relationship between a Jewish art dealer in San Francisco and his business partner in Munich created a sensation when it was first published. (The New York Times Book Review called it “the most effective indictment of Nazism to appear in fiction.”) Rediscovered in 1995 when it was reissued to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the WWII armistice, it has since been adapted for the stage in a number of international productions from Israel to Argentina. For all that exposure, this is the kind of material that doesn’t date or feel redundant.

It’s hard to imagine a more sensitive interpretation of this material than Frank Dunlop’s, which focuses with equal intensity on both the similarities of the two friends and the ideological differences that, in the bitterest of ironies, will ultimately turn them into enemies but fail to destroy their mutual affection. In their separate ways, Dale and Atherton embrace that paradox and use it as the common backbone of their performances. However ugly the language that creeps into their correspondence, both thesps eloquently communicate the emotional cost of their cruel words, which can and, in the end, do kill.

Dale owns one side of the stage as Max Eisenstein, a cultured Jewish art dealer sitting in the comfort of his sleek San Francisco office. Atherton claims the opposite side as Max’s boyhood friend and partner, Martin Schulse, who has recently returned to Germany and grandly settled himself and his family in a castle. Although David Lander’s lighting design carefully defines their private spaces, the light glows golden and seems to melt whenever Max and Martin are reading one another’s letters, which are written idiomatically and sometime in haste, but always with the casual eloquence of a bygone era that valued language.

At a glance, the two men appear to be polar opposites: Max in his sober suit and buttoned-up weskit, Martin strutting around in riding boots and jodhpurs. (The rich fabrics of Jim Stewart’s well-cut costumes have that “good goods” look of tasteful luxury.) But both men are playing the same popular songs on their gramophones and, in an inspired bit of stagecraft from set designer James Youmans, they work at the same desk and share the same bookcase. Although Max’s end has the trim modernist lines of Bauhaus and Martin’s end is solidly grounded in the bourgeois style of Papa Biedermeier, just the way they shelve their books and display their family photos is visual confirmation of their deep internal attachment. When Martin’s growing enthusiasm for Nazi party-line propaganda begins to weaken the bond of that friendship, it’s almost a surprise that the furniture they share doesn’t crack in the middle and come crashing to the floor.

The rupture comes gradually, but once it starts there’s no stopping it. Sensitive Max sees it coming, and the utter desolation in Dale’s eyes is chilling to the bone. Even as he appeals to Martin’s “liberal mind and warm heart” to reassure him that there is nothing to the rumors of pogroms in the Fatherland, those eyes say differently. “It is natural that I turn to you for light,” he writes to Martin, refusing to accept that the light has gone out of Martin’s soul. When Max finally realizes the extent of Martin’s betrayal and calculates the cost of his own revenge, Dale makes the unerring technical choice to cover Max’s eyes with his hands. Perfect.

Atherton’s acting choices are even more interesting, because of the two characters it is Martin who seems more likely to crack and do something crazy. Holding that eccentric voice of his in check, Atherton clenches his jaw and plays Martin with a ramrod-stiff Prussian spine. And when he finally makes his big physical move, in admitting to Max his love for Max’s headstrong sister, he unbends and throws open his arms — not in despair over the love he lost, or even in remorse for the pain he inflicted, but in a shockingly naked plea for Max’s forgiveness.

In an age when even the most strictly trained actors tend to coarsen their accents, it’s a pleasure to report that both Dale and Atherton speak in the precise and measured accents of the European intellectuals they are supposed to be. But even when neither performer is speaking a word, the communication between the two seems telepathic.

Address Unknown

Promenade; 399 Seats; $65 top

Production

A D&L Prods. presentation of a play in one act adapted by Frank Dunlop from the 1938 novella by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor. Directed by Frank Dunlop.

Creative

Set, James Youmans; costumes, Jim Stewart; lighting, David Lander; sound, Matthew Burton; production stage manager, Christine Catti. Opened June 10, 2004. Reviewed June 9. Running time: 1 HOUR, 15 MIN.

Cast

Max Eisenstein - Jim Dale Martin Schulse - William Atherton
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