Reviewed by Bob Verini
Mark Taper Forum
Through Aug. 23
Martin Sherman’s Bent is one of those plays whose revival isn’t just welcome but necessary. As much as popular culture, literature and scholarship keep revisiting the causes, crimes and legacy of the Nazi era, somehow or other it seems as if interest keeps drying up in the dismal story of Germany’s appalling treatment of homosexuals. It was a persecution all the more cruel because the climate was in the process of liberalizing just before Hitler’s rise to power, so gay men may have been encouraged to become particularly heedless of the fate that was in store for them.
Sherman’s central character Max is certainly heedless, and for those unfamiliar, a little synopsis may be in order. Played in the current Mark Taper Forum production by Patrick Heusinger, Max is the black sheep of a prosperous family and an uninhibited participant in the Weimar club scene. Sex and drugs and booze fill his appetites; charm and a talent for deal-making, his sureties that no matter how bad things go for “fluffs” (the euphemism of the day), things will always work out okay.
Alas, a casual pickup of a young S.S. man goes violently wrong, causing him to have to go on the run with milquetoasty roommate Rudy (a likeable Andy Mientus). Max is too cynical and self-absorbed to admit his true feelings for Rudy —an interesting variation on “the love that dare not speak its name. When he winds up in a concentration camp, he opts for a yellow badge rather than a pink one, reasoning that as bad as Jews have it, he won’t self-identify as gay. Just one more of those deals. But over time, through the relationship forged with another inmate, Horst (Charlie Hofheimer, very strong and persuasive), in the course of fiendishly torturous hard labor that takes up Act 2, Max finally if belatedly comes to his epiphany.
I have encountered Bent on three previous occasions. Backstage at the original Broadway incarnation, I was privileged to discuss the play at length with star Richard Gere and director Robert Allan Ackerman. In 1981 on a free evening in Paris, Sherman’s was the only current text with which I was sufficiently familiar to overcome the deficiencies of my high school French, and Max was the late, great Bruno Cremer. A few years later, I happened to be visiting Oxford when the OUDS was mounting a revival, so I ended up there as well. Each time – and again now, at the Taper – I have always been impressed by the piece’s ongoing historical relevance, and moved by Act 2’s emotional power.
That said, it has always struck me that in taking Max from the heyday of Weimar Berlin to the depths of Dachau, Bent was trying to be not just a story of the Nazi war on homosexuals but the story. (I included the synopsis above, which though lengthy leaves out quite a bit of incident, to suggest some of the overload of the pre-Dachau sequences.) By shoving so much exposition and incident into his narrative, to represent so many different facets of the Weimar experience, Bent arguably puts Max through a good deal more than one individual protagonist might reasonably confront. While each individual mishap or pressure point might be believable, the whole comes across as more contrived than the sum of its parts.
Also, and I’m not the first to note this, there’s a distinct stylistic disparity between the episodic, multi-character Act 1 and the spare two-hander of Act 2. (In Dachau, Max and Horst are seen in the glare of sunshine and the chill of winter, assigned to tote heavy rocks 40 feet or so across the yard, and then tote them back again, endlessly, uselessly.) The first half’s campiness – the naked Storm Trooper; the teasy sidewalk cruising of Max’s Uncle Freddie (Ray Baker) – and the lurid melodrama of Max and Rudy’s transporting, don’t coexist especially comfortably with the second half’s Beckettian, dusty rigor. So much so that one might suspect that Act 1 largely exists as a setup for Act 2, in which Sherman’s real interest lies.
At the Taper, director Moises Kaufman has paced the script exceptionally well throughout. He doesn’t linger overmuch on the Weimar stuff, and he allows the rock-moving sequences plenty of time to create the proper maddening, nightmarish rhythms. But Beowulf Boritt’s set, a rotating platform that’s upended to become a Dachau guard tower, employs mechanics more appropriate to a rousing Broadway musical than a serious piece of historical art, and Kaufman and Ken Roht ought to have found something fresher to do with the performers in their gay bar than assemble a chorus line of preening Alan Cummings.
Kaufman has not done well by Heusinger. Emotional vulnerability establishes itself as Max’s norm early on, undercutting the impression of a feckless individualist who never explains or apologizes. During his opening hangover, for instance, Max has no memory of the extreme hijinks he engaged in the night before, and as Mientus’s Rudy enumerates them, Heusinger emphasizes shame, embarrassment, even self-loathing. But surely Max must feel a good deal of pride as his shenanigans are revealed: He engages in them nightly, after all, and he likes to be seen as a risk-taking rascal. The prouder Max is in Act 1, the more events can slowly tear him down as the action moves along, but this production’s interpretation slights the character’s initial strength.
Whatever its deficiencies, this Bent should certainly be seen, and widely. It always rewards a visit. I have taken away at least one indelible impression from every past production, starting with Richard Gere’s titanic battle to not give way to weakness, emotionality, and vulnerability. In Paris, that Cremer was in his mid-50s and brought considerable novelty to the play. (A 20ish or 30ish uncontrollable hedonist is understandable; but someone who’s been running wild for an additional 20 or 30 years beyond that, still unwilling to admit or understand his true self? That’s so much sadder.) The Oxford Max was a kind of stolid block of wood, but I can still recall Rudy, a small, chirpy but indomitable kid who broke your heart in his efforts to protect the man who steadfastly refused to acknowledge their love together. Max was clearly the dominant partner, but he was just as clearly the one in need of the support this little guy selflessly provided.
When I think back to the Taper production, I suspect what will stay with me is Hofheimer’s Horst. Every bit as fiery as his Abe Drexler character in Mad Men, Hofheimer blends mordant humor with aching human need, and the particular path to madness this Horst follows is palpable, and unique. Then, too, it will be hard to erase the memory of the final tableau against the Taper’s enormous back wall, headshots of contemporary gay men mowed down by the real life swirl of bitter history. The actors begin their curtain call with their backs to us, honoring them. We should honor them, too.
Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Dwntwn.; Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat. 2:30 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through August 23. (213) 628-2772, www.centertheatregroup.org