You can’t choose your relatives, but you can choose how to exploit them. William Patrick Hitler, the talent-free son of the Fuhrer’s half-brother, is the subject of Mark Kassen’s short asterisk of a play, “little Willy.” But even with Uncle Adolf in the wings, the playwright-performer makes the marginal figure of Hitler’s estranged nephew even more inconsequential.
Footnote drama can be compelling if there’s a strong point of view, smartly presented. After all, Salieri, not Mozart, is the protagonist of “Amadeus,” and Tom Stoppard found a new Shakespearean perspective with minor characters in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.”
But the promising themes of celebrity, spin and self-promotion are meagerly presented here without wit, freshness or insight. Play’s future should match the fate of its subject.
The strange-but-true story of the nephew of the 20th century’s greatest villain seems rich with possibilities. Born in 1911 in England and raised in Ireland, the identity-challenged fellow tried to make the most of his uncle’s notoriety, first in Germany in the 1930s, then in the U.S., where he eventually settled, publicly denouncing the fuhrer.
But you know you’re in trouble when even a con man named Hitler is a bore. Both in Kassen’s script and perf, this Willy is a salesman of remarkably limited talents.
Early in the play we see him as a hustling VW car salesman in Germany in 1936, later as a shill for toothpaste and chewing gum. Despite his dapper looks and love of dance, he is no smoothie.
With a thick Irish brogue, Kassen’s perf under helmer John Gould Rubin is all shallow bombast. He is a carnival barker who quickly wears out his welcome, an incessant name-dropper (Hess, Himmler and Humphrey Bogart all have the same celebrity status for him) and a pathetic cipher.
We keep waiting for the narrative, for a theme, for a character to kick in — it never does. Instead we have a series of encounters with several women, all played by Roxanna Hope, filling in some background biography as well as illustrating Willy’s sexual inadequacies (hence the play’s title). Interspersed throughout the play are excerpts from his long, self-promoting letter to President Franklin Roosevelt seeking residence and volunteering to join the U.S. military.
Production values are spare, with simple projections (a copy of Willy’s letter to FDR, a picture of an early-model VW, an advertisement for one of his lectures) giving a semblance of authenticity and much needed visual oomph.
But it’s the series of slides at the play’s end that pack the most dramatic punch — after Willy/Kassen has left the stage. A photograph of the real Willy is projected on a screen, first as a young man in Germany, then as a U.S. seaman and then shortly before his death in the ’80s as a longtime Long Island resident living anonymously under an assumed name.
But there’s still one more slide: school yearbook pictures of Willy’s three surviving sons — now middle-aged. Though they never sought attention or acknowledged their lineage, they now must suffer, not from the sins of the father but those of the playwright.