Where do I belong? That’s the question that runs through “The Milliner,” the story of a Berliner forced into exile — leaving his mother to perish in a concentration camp — who nevertheless pines for his beloved city. First-time playwright Suzanne Glass has a lot to say and an interesting way of saying it for most of the evening, unfortunately losing her way during the final half hour. Until that point, though, the play and production are mighty impressive.
Wolfgang (Michel Gill) is a high-fashion milliner, making hats for the Berlin upper crust and as non-Jewish as a Jewish German can be. He learns his trade from, and goes into business with, his mother; his father was killed fighting for Germany in the first war.
A sheltered and devoted mama’s boy, he meets and marries portrait painter Amalia (Julia Haubner). When the Nazis come into power, they flee to London while Wolfgang’s mother (Maria Cellario) chooses to stay in Berlin. (One of several devastating passages describes how she smuggled her favorite hat — a blood orange beret — into the camp, hiding it in a drainpipe by day and wearing it on her shaved head when she slept.)
Life for Wolfgang in wartime London is very much a case of them (the British) against us (the Germans). Amalia copes by mixing in and learning proper English. As soon as the war ends, Wolfgang returns to an all-but-demolished Berlin to try and re-establish his life.
The first scenes here are compelling, with another strong exchange as a former society customer (Donna Davis) — dressed in the plainest, drabbest grays — with great embarrassment returns the silver candlesticks that Wolfgang’s mother left in her possession. “Don’t blame yourself, you had nothing to do with it,” Wolfgang commiserates. “I was here!” Frau Hendel shoots back. “I breathed in the air, didn’t I?”
There’s also a tale of remnants of the Philharmonic Orchestra rehearsing Mahler’s Seventh in their suits and ties on the bombed-out site. The music was beautiful but thin; too many missing musicians.
At this moment, with Wolfgang shuttling between London and Berlin, “The Milliner” perplexingly shifts into “Double Indemnity” land, complete with a finish that recalls James Mason and Shelley Winters in the climactic scene of “A Double Life.”
Playwright Glass, in a program note, dedicates the play to her grandfather, “a milliner, a pianist, a Berliner, a Jew and a true gentleman.” While the biographical facts are unknown, discerning playgoers can almost pinpoint the moment when the fictionalized biography presumably ends — after the candlestick scene — and the noirish fiction begins. This might make for a dramatic (or at least melodramatic) curtain, but it grafts a choppy and unsatisfying finish onto an otherwise intriguing and gripping play.
Gill gives an especially strong performance in the central part. Lengthy role takes the character from charmed nonchalance to the depths of despair, with flashbacks to scenes as a teenager. Gill remains likable and, most importantly under the circumstances, always believable (until those final plot turns).
The rest of the seven-character cast is uniformly good, with Caralyn Kozlowski — a blonde chanteuse in act one — surprising with some fine acting in the second frame. Haubner plays the conflicted wife who can’t understand her husband’s pro-German stance, Cellario is refined as the mother, and Davis is wrenching in the candlestick scene.
Production is first rate all around. Director Mark Clements skillfully engages audience interest and keeps the action in this dream play flowing on a multilevel unit set, simply but effectively designed by Todd Edward Ivins and lit by Jeff Nellis.
Costumes work well, too. Designer Gregory Gale puts Wolfgang in one costume — a stylish double-breasted suit — throughout. Gill appears courtly and elegant in the early stages, but as the war progresses, he seems to deflate within the confines of the pinstripe. Dresses for the upper-crust Germans range from stylish to stunning.
Best of all, perhaps, are the hats by Lynne Mackey. There are about 20 of them — different types, but all eye-catching — ranged about the stage on hat blocks, plus more that come out of sample cases. At one point, Clements, Ivins, Nellis and Mackey combine to create a stunning stage picture, with the colorful hats — on the furniture, sitting downstage on the apron and suspended high above the stage behind the scrim — individually lit.
But the strengths of the production can’t compete with the plotting late in the second act. Glass — a Briton with German-born grandparents — is an accomplished novelist (“The Interpreter”) and journalist. This Off Broadway engagement is billed as the “world premiere”; one hopes that the fine production will send the playwright back to the computer in search of an ending that is as real, honest and gripping as the first 90 minutes of “The Milliner.”