Scripter Martin Sherman's 1979 perusal of one gay man's efforts to survive the brutal intolerance of Nazi Germany is given a measured but well-realized outing by an impressive ensemble, led by John Marzilli's riveting portrayal of wheeler-dealer Max. Helmer Claudia Jaffee treats each scene as if it were a stand-alone one-act play.

Scripter Martin Sherman’s 1979 perusal of one gay man’s efforts to survive the brutal intolerance of Nazi Germany is given a measured but well-realized outing by an impressive ensemble, led by John Marzilli’s riveting portrayal of wheeler-dealer Max. Helmer Claudia Jaffee treats each scene as if it were a stand-alone one-act play. This approach tests the dramatic throughline of the work, but underscores the richly detailed personalities that invade Max’s psyche following Hitler’s infamous Night of the Long Knives in 1934.

Unlike a traditional legiter, “Bent” unfolds like a screenplay, moving from location to location with a panoramic sweep, introducing and discarding characters along the way. Dissolute aristocrat Max survives in the seedy underbelly of Berlin’s gay society by dealing in whatever commodity is available, including himself.

When Max has the misfortune of having a one-night stand with a Gestapo fugitive on the night the Nazis launch their reign of terror against all Third Reich undesirables (including gays), Max and his adoring, emotionally fragile roommate Rudy (John Cohn) are forced to flee. Despite Max’s sneering self-confidence that he can evade the Nazis, he is eventually captured and imprisoned at Dachau, where he finally is forced to come to terms with his own humanity.

Jaffee never hurries the action, allowing each episode in Max’s misadventure to spotlight a memorable cameo performance. Max’s physically imposing pickup lover, Wolfe, is played to the voracious hilt by Michael Bronte. As Greta, the self-serving owner of the gay bar where Rudy works as a dancer, Geoffrey Dwyer is deliciously reptilian, casually informing Max that it was he who led the Nazis to the location of Max’s tryst.

Richard S. Irving’s Uncle Freddy offers a perfectly executed study in sophistication as the aging aristocrat who is Max’s only contact with his disapproving family. And Paul Vroom is tangibly malevolent as the Dachau Nazi officer who orchestrates the lives and deaths of the prisoners with utter civility and courtesy.

As Max’s two loves, Cohn’s Rudy and Josh Gordon’s Horst are more defined characters within the saga. Cohn is endearing as the socially incomplete man-child who clings to Max for survival. Gordon’s Horst exudes the dignity and humanity that eventually provide Max with the emotional clarity to be a human being.

Always underscoring the pathos and the humor in every scene, Marzilli inhabits Max’s flawed soul, his darting eyes ever wary of his environment, his mind constantly evaluating how he can take advantage of a situation.

Although Kurt Boethcher’s modular set pieces prove clunky during the many time-consuming scene changes, they provide a believable environment for Max’s journey of self-discovery. Diana Mann’s costumes are period-perfect.

Bent

Deaf West Theater, Los Angeles; 99 seats; $20 top

Production

An Aislinn Prods. presentation of a play in two acts by Martin Sherman. Directed by Claudia Jaffee.

Creative

Sets, Kurt Boetcher; lighting, Lisa D. Katz; sound, Cricket Myers; costumes, Diana Mann. Opened, reviewed July 15, 2005. Runs through Aug. 21. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.

Cast

Max - John Marzilli Rudy - John Cohn Horst - Josh Gordon Wolfe - Michael Bronte Greta - Geoffrey Dwyer Uncle Freddie - Richard S. Irving Captain - Paul Vroom Ensemble - Brian White, Tim Scozzaro, Steve Humphreys
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