Devils’ Disciples

Years ago, in Paris on a Fulbright fellowship, I met the Austrian émigré playwright Ferdinand Bruckner and had some delightful times with him and his wife. Those were afternoons irradiated by his wit. Bruckner was, after all, the man who under his real name, Theodor Tagger, reviewed some of his own plays. To this day, I cherish a crumbling copy of his Historische Dramen, inscribed (in German) “To the young poet John Simon, with best wishes, F. Bruckner.”

But neither then nor later did I see a Bruckner play produced. Now Barry Edelstein has adapted one of the earlier ones, Race (Die Rassen), and directed it at his Classic Stage Company, quite possibly the best production CSC has ever mounted. Race takes place during a month in the spring of 1933, when the Nazis got the majority vote in their first election and an Enabling Act granted Hitler a free legislative hand.

Only months after these ominous days, which also included a nationwide boycott of Jewish shops, Bruckner wrote Race in Paris. A young man, Peter Karlanner, lives with his girlfriend, Helene Marx, who saved him from a drunken bum’s existence. She comes from a wealthy, pro-Nazi Jewish family that she has repudiated and works as a lowly typist; he is a medical student, soon to become a doctor. Peter is apolitical, which does not stop him from despising the upstart Nazis, whom his school comrade Tessow enthusiastically embraces.

Partly under Tessow’s suasion, partly under the effect of the transformation wrought in one of their flunking schoolmates, Hans Hinz Rosloh, now a brutal but charismatic Nazi troop leader, Peter is drawn to the trimly uniformed, swaggering, greater-Germany-heralding Nazis, carrying on in the very beer hall he haunted before his rescue by Helene. Other students, too, have joined the party, and, to Helene’s horror, Peter gets sucked in.

What happens thereafter you must find out for yourselves. Race is both scarily suspenseful and heartbreakingly elegant (Bruckner began as a poet, and some of his plays are in free verse) and, for the most part, very well acted. Outstanding are Stephen Barker Turner as Peter, C. J. Wilson as Rosloh, and Jeremy Shamos as Nathan Siegelmann, one of their Jewish classmates, in whose hideous humiliation and brutalization Peter participates, only to be left devastated. There are good supporting performances, notably from Ronald Guttman as Helene’s magnate father, who thinks that pro-Nazi Jews have nothing to fear and urges his daughter to return home.

Tommy Schrider, as Tessow, starts shakily but gets better; the one terrible mistake is the casting of Jenny Bacon, who makes Helene unappealing in looks and demeanor. She has grotesque facial expressions and a moist way of speaking, as if her words were sloshing in mouthwash. But never mind: Neil Patel and Jan Hartley have come up with spare scenery and opulently evocative slide projections to capture time and place superbly. Angela Wendt’s costumes and Russell H. Champa’s lighting condignly complete the picture.

The last scene is not quite up to the rest: Karlanner’s expiatory nobility does not ring true; still, this is a play about real people in real, rending situations and comes as close as anything I know to explaining how a cultured nation hurtled into stupefying barbarity.

Rebecca Gilman’s Boy Gets Girl is the same production that premiered last year at Chicago’s Goodman Theater: same cast, designers, and director, Michael Maggio, whose death required Lynne Meadow to step in as supervisor. The young author, however, may have made some small changes in the text. Although slightly flawed, it is an effective play, and it too, like Race, has an unlisted but powerful stage presence: fear.

Theresa Bedell, in her mid-thirties, is a reporter at The World, lately so absorbed in her work as to have no social life. A girlfriend talks her into a blind date with Tony, a somewhat younger man. The two meet at a bar. He is attractive and, like herself, a University of Michigan graduate (though he does not know who Edith Wharton is). He is attentive, even solicitous, and Theresa accepts a dinner date.

There, however, things go awry. She realizes that Tony is a quirky dullard, and not for her. She leaves early, on the excuse of worrying about an article on Les Kennkat, an elderly director of sexual-exploitation movies, whom she must interview the next day. Tony is disappointed, but hopeful. He becomes insistent: keeps sending flowers, comes unsolicited to Theresa’s office, is always phoning (Theresa’s silly young assistant, Harriet, gives him her boss’s number), won’t take no for an answer. Meanwhile, the interview with Kennkat, an affable oaf with a breast fixation, is a bit of a comic fiasco, too.

At The World, Theresa has for editor Howard Siegel (he doesn’t know who William Dean Howells is), an amiable slave driver, divorced, and paternally solicitous. A younger colleague, Mercer Stevens, is a trifle overambitious and pushy but seemingly sympathetic, decent, and smart (he only doesn’t know that Bronson Alcott introduced Thoreau to Whitman). All these relationships, including that with Kennkat, will take surprising turns, mostly pleasant; only the Tony business escalates into nightmare.

I am told that television is full of stalker movies and discussions, which makes Gilman’s play stale. I don’t watch such TV and found Boy Gets Girl fresh enough. The characters are cannily drawn, the dialogue is witty, idiosyncratic, and incisive. There is genuine suspense and mounting terror and only in one respect some inauthenticity. Even though the policewoman Madeline Beck is believable, the depicted police procedure seems a bit implausible. Some police callousness and carelessness I will buy, but this excessive casualness comes too steep.

Totally persuasive, though, is Maggio’s staging and the cast’s cohesive ensemble work. That these Chicago actors are unfamiliar to us increases their credibility; but even without that, the performances are dazzlingly on target. Mary Beth Fisher’s Theresa admirably finds finely calibrated but compelling details throughout. Matt DeCaro is staunch and jovial as Howard, David Adkins aptly makes Mercer fallible despite all his right instincts, Shayna Ferm’s Harriet is idiotic in a very human way, and Ora Jones’s policewoman has the proper blend of jadedness and sympathy.

The two most difficult roles are Tony and Les Kennkat, who must provide the biggest, and yet believable, character revelations. Ian Lithgow does well enough by Tony, but Howard Witt portrays Les, a cartoon character of primary colors, with such inventively delicate shadings as to be a pure joy. All that plus excellent production values make this, whatever your reservations, rather better than TV watching.

Directed by Barry Edelstein; starring Stephen Barker Turner. At the Classic Stage Company.
Boy Gets Girl
Directed by Lynne Meadow; starring Mary Beth Fisher. At the City Center.

Devils’ Disciples