More is clearly less in the Wilma production of Doug Wright’s remarkable tour de force “I Am My Own Wife,” which won both the Tony and Pulitzer in Moises Kaufman’s dazzling original production, performed as a solo piece by Jefferson Mays. By adding a second actor with the playwright’s permission, director Blanka Zizka has diminished this marvelous play, compromising what Wright calls its “central tenet: that one person can embody a host of contradictions.”
That idea was splendidly dramatized by having one actor play all the roles. But Zizka, a survivor of Czech history, has said, “For me the play is a meeting of two people who lived in two different political systems.” Otherness is now externalized rather than internalized, and the result is both less moving and less interesting.
The play is based on Wright’s interviews with Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a transvestite who survived both the SS and the Stasi in East Berlin. She created a museum — a house filled with furniture, phonographs and objects from the 1890s in Germany — rescuing the past from time, from the war, from the Nazis, the Communists and the homophobes, although we discover that she herself is “the rarest artifact.”
The play lets us share the playwright’s fascination (he himself is one of the 35 characters), a fascination that lies not only in personality and in history but in the theatrical idea of transformation: a man into a woman, a costume into a person, past into present, German into English, a voice into a recording, an idea into a play.
In the division of the many roles, Floyd King plays the Europeans while Kevin Bergen plays the Americans in act one. The playwright and the foreign correspondent pal who sends him information from Germany are played as bumptious and impossibly naïve; they both speak in self-consciously cute uptalk — very gay, very fey.
King plays Charlotte as studied and manipulative — and thus less charming and dignified. Almost all her speeches contain pauses for our complicit laughs. Act two divvies things up differently, although not necessarily meaningfully: King plays American soldiers as crass and vulgar, while Bergen gets a chance to show off a variety of excellent accents — French, Indian, Japanese, etc. — playing caricatures of reporters from all over the world.
The museum is suggested by tiny, detailed models, lovingly handled. But the huge, crudely bright projections of gramophones on the back wall compromise the old-fashioned atmosphere. Because projections are not, obviously, the real things, and because they depend on a technology antithetical to Charlotte’s conservationist inclinations, it seems an intrusion rather than an illustration. It could be argued, however, that they more accurately convey her contradictions — a woman who refused to own a TV goes on the talkshow circuit.
A theatrically shocking moment occurs early on when, remembering herself as a boy wearing female clothes for the first time, the old Charlotte sees her young self in a film (or hologram?) projected onto the rear wall as though in a mirror. Such literalism, such externalization, denies both the illusion-making power of great acting and the deep humanity of this gorgeous play.