A play that offers two philosophers a platform on which to debate their divergent philosophies on the Nazi Party is a play that would seem to have a commercial death wish. But this smart and shapely debut work, winner of the Kennedy Center Roger L. Stevens Award and a finalist for the Blackburn Prize, is more dynamic than it sounds -- in part because it is also the love story of Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger, the two celebrated thinkers of its title.

A play that offers two philosophers a platform on which to debate their divergent philosophies on the Nazi Party is a play that would seem to have a commercial death wish. But this smart and shapely debut work, winner of the Kennedy Center Roger L. Stevens Award and a finalist for the Blackburn Prize, is more dynamic than it sounds — in part because it is also the love story of Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger, the two celebrated thinkers of its title. Although the SoHo theater in which the show plays is no bigger than a breadbox, audience appeal is manifest, prompting one extension of the run and chatter of transfer.

Hannah (Melissa Friedman) was the Jewish political philosopher whose name was on every intellectual’s lips when she covered the Nuremberg war-crimes trials for the New Yorker. Martin (David Strathairn) was the pure thinker, the German theoretical philosopher who admired Hitler (not for his ideas, but simply for having ideas in the first place) and whose membership in the Nazi Party helped to legitimatize it.

Before the war, Martin was Hannah’s teacher and also her lover. After the war, Hannah joined the international intellectual community in demanding that Martin be stripped of his teaching position at Freiburg U. Years after that, Hannah wrote a letter recanting her position and asking for Martin’s reinstatement as a teacher.

The play opens at this dramatic point and keeps circling back on itself to examine and speculate on how these two beautiful minds ever got themselves in such a fix. But while its fine brain is on fire with the passion of thought, the drama lacks a lyrical tongue, speaking the language of love with particular awkwardness.

Playwright Kate Fodor distracts from that flaw by concentrating on the logic, rather than the language, of her play’s central dilemma: How can one forgive the unforgivable?

Strong on craft, Fodor handles the structural logistics like a clever mathematician patiently working her way through a tricky formula. Courtroom scenes of Nuremberg, where Hannah is covering the 1946 trial of the head of the Hitler Youth League, are balanced by scenes from Hannah’s own youth, when she first captured Martin’s attention as a beautiful and brilliant university student. Chilly domestic moments in Martin’s loveless marriage are bookended with moments of passion in his private cabin.

By returning to pivotal scenes and replaying key lines of dialogue — exactly how an unquiet brain works on a problem — Fodor tracks Hannah’s moral dilemma over three decades and leaves the philosophical issues open for the audience’s silent involvement.

Although the constant shifting of time and setting keeps the stage busy, the only real movement is the interplay of ideas. For much of the time, that seems to be enough for this cerebral exercise. “Ideas have weight and consequences,” declares Hannah, who is the more lucid, hard-headed thinker.

Attacking the role with a serene air of assurance, Friedman pursues every twist and turn of Hannah’s labyrinthine thought process. But by taking these intellectual chores too much to heart, her stiff-necked portrayal of Hannah seems not quite human.

“In the end, no one was interested in ideas,” says Martin, who thinks like a visionary and talks like a poet. While Strathairn can’t entirely overcome Fodor’s insistence on making Martin a clumsy lover and selfish egomaniac, he’s still the most passionate figure onstage — a better lover of words than of women, but brutally truthful to his character.

Of the supporting players, only George Morfogen (“Fortune’s Fool”), a veteran actor who knows how to layer a character with precision and subtlety, creates a fully textured inner life for his character, scientific theorist Karl Jaspers.

Had he not been so taken over by the logistical demands of the scene-shifting script (or gone with a less rigid set design), helmer Ron Russell might have shown more attentiveness to the flesh-and-blood needs of his deep-thinking characters.

But, even in its imperfect production, Fodor’s first play is an impressive accomplishment — and something of a gift for audiences who would rather leave the theater thinking long thoughts than scratching their bellies.

Hannah and Martin

Manhattan Ensemble Theater; 135 seats; $45 top

Production

An Epic Theater Center presentation of a play in two acts by Kate Fodor. Directed by Ron Russell.

Creative

Sets, Nathan Heverin; costumes, Margaret E. Weedon; lighting, Elizabeth Gaines; production stage manager, Bryan Scott Clark. Opened March 31, 2004. Reviewed April 11. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast

Hannah Arendt - Melissa Friedman Martin Heidegger - David Strathairn Karl Jaspers - George Morfogen Elfride Heidegger - Laura Hicks
With: Teri Lamm, Brandon Miller, Sandra Shipley, James Willert.

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