Walking To Buchenwald
Reviewed by Paul Birchall
Open Fist Theatre Company
Through October 21
It’s hard to define the tone of playwright Tom Jacobson’s excellent new play, a deceptively simple story of a gay couple taking one of their aging parents on their first Grand Tour of Europe. Featuring the playwright’s brilliant ear for nuance and ambiguity, it’s funny, with quirky incidents punctuated with irony and humor. But there’s also an underlying sadness, which comes from an awareness that life inevitably slides into decline, whether it’s a nation that seems to have turned into a country of madness, or the luckiest of individuals. One thing’s for sure: Walking to Buchenwald is a thoughtful, moody piece that mixes bittersweet warmth with a sense of encroaching darkness.
The play is partially double cast, with a presentational style similar to last year’s Captain of the Bible Quiz Team, which featured different actors in the same lead role. Here, two male performers playing a gay couple (Chris Cappiello and Justin Huen, the “Die Herren” cast) alternate with two female performers playing the same characters as a lesbian couple (Amielynn Abellera and Mandy Schneider, the “Die Damen” cast).
I saw the “Die Herren” cast, in which Schiller (Cappiello) and his lover Arjay (Huen) convince Schiller’s aging parents Roger (Ben Martin) and Mildred (Laura James), who live in Oklahoma, to join them on a trip to Europe to celebrate Roger’s birthday. Schiller, a high-strung museum administrator in Los Angeles, loves his parents but considers them hopelessly parochial (even though Dad retired from a long life as a university theater professor). He worries about how they will behave in “sophisticated” Europe. He needn’t have been concerned — in fact, as the family travels from England to France and then to Germany, it’s Schiller whose intense need to schedule and micromanage creates his own meltdown. Meanwhile, his parents’ failing health — and the increasing hostility of the locals to Americans as the Trump-tragedy continues back home — add conflict and suspense to their tour.
While I haven’t seen the “Die Derren” cast, the play, as performed by the Cappiello and Huen, is self- contained and powerful. Jacobson’s writing is rich and funny; at times he waxes sharply political, as when he offers his take on “Americans abroad,” or portrays how the world’s perception of a dominant America is fading. Elsewhere, his writing crafts a melancholy statement on mortality and the frailty of age, so poignant when observed in one’s own parents. It’s especially artful how the narrative transitions from a conventional story about a family trip to a barbed exchange laden with resentment and then to something larger, sadder, and more tragically involving.
Director Roderick Menzies’ tightly controlled but intimate staging proceeds in a series of blackout scenes, as Cappiello drags his increasingly exhausted parents and his lover on the European tour of his own devising. The stops on the tour are personified by supporting performer Will Bradley’s adroitly varied turns as the denizens of Britain, France, and Germany, who gradually become more and more hostile to Americans. Bradley is particularly memorable as a mean Paris waiter who refuses to serve the family, and later as a brutish punk in Berlin who might be Mildred’s distant cousin.
As the tightly wound Schiller, Cappiello skillfully devolves from a highly competent professional to (like so many of us) a whiny teenager in the presence of his parents. Huen is also really engaging as his lover — and even Schiller’s parents seem to like him more than they like their own son.
But it’s the deft, increasingly subtle performances by Martin and James that anchor the show. Their transitions from loud Americans to wise elderly people is both ridiculous and profound. James has the knack of appearing to smile when her character is clearly unhappy or removed, which makes her fascinating to watch. Martin draws a beautiful portrait of a man who knows he has outlived his own usefulness, but has to keep going, regrets and all.
Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave, Atwater; Thurs-Sat., at 8 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m.; through Oct 21. (323) 882-6912 ir www.openfist.org. Running time: 90 minutes with an intermission.