Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Fringe 2011 Review: Wilhelmstrasse

Posted by metaphorical on 24 August 2011


1h 55m
VENUE #8: The First Floor Theatre @ LA MAMA
Performance seen: Wed 24 @ 4:15
Remaining performance: Fri 26 @ 2

Rating: 6
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)

Here’s a description of the show that it seems Stuart Caldwell wanted to write in “Wilhemstrasse”:

A 1990s friendship between a Samuel, a New York Jewish man and Rica, a German woman, never tips into romance in this story that moves forward toward its dramatic and backward to its beginning, as the differences pulling them apart prove stronger than the attraction that pulls them together.

Here’s the show as Caldwell himself describes it in his Fringenyc.org description:

A provocative relationship between a beautiful German girl and sarcastic New York Jew probes art, sexless love and the struggle to comprehend the Holocaust and its enduring stigma. Part travelogue, part polemic on identity, religion and the Past’s binding ties.

I trust it’s obvious that that’s not a show, nor would it be even if the relationship were provocative (which it isn’t), even if the guy were sufficiently sarcastic (he isn’t), and even if the show probed art and sexless love (which it doesn’t and doesn’t).

Before I create the impression that I hated this show, which I didn’t, let me first say it fills me mostly with frustration at what it could have been. The idea of the show is fine: a two person play in which a Jewish man’s inability to forgive the Germans for their Nazi past is embodied in his inability to regard a German woman he cares deeply for more as an individual person than a member of the German people.

There, are, however, a couple of other constraints that Caldwell placed on his story, and they prove to be its undoing.

First is that this is not a romantic relationship. It’s all fine and well for Caldwell to want to explore friendship instead of romance, but the problem then becomes, what’s at stake for these two people? Samuel seems to want a romance, though with an uncertain intensity of desire—by which I mean, we never really know how much he wants it (and by the way, I suspect we don’t because Caldwell himself doesn’t know)—and she unequivocally doesn’t want it.

Worse, because the story unfolds forward and backward in alternating scenes, with the penultimate scene being their last time together, and the final scene being the time they met, the play starts in the middle and we instantly know that there will be no romance for them.

So what’s left? Some kind of friendship. But to sustain a two-hour show such as this one, it has to face obstacles, and they must want it very much.

Here again, Caldwell’s decision to tell the story forward and backward compounds his problems. The scene that clearly shows the wit, charm, regard, and growing affection between them falls in the second act; then too, the obstacles are all in his head. They are internal to him, making them literally invisible to us, and they leave her out of the conflict except to be its object. Rica never, for example, has to make a choice—say, one between her prestigious and exciting lawyering job at the Volkwagen company that employed slave labor in the Nazi era and now is dragging its heels over reparations, and her growing love for Samuel.

As the beginning of this review might suggest, my reaction to this play in its first couple of scenes was a fairly violent hostility, and I came within an inch of the exit at the intermission. My initial thought was to blame the actors, specifically Nick Masson as Samuel. His every line was preceded by a pause, or followed by one, and often both occurred in the same piece of dialogue.

I still think Masson is wrong for the part, but I don’t think that’s the bigger share of the problem. Frankly, the acting in the Fringe is almost uniformly fine or better, and actors are invariably held back from better performances by the limitations of their material. Sure enough, my inclination now is to blame the play. Masson is fine whenever a scene has some rising beats of conflict. Most of the time, he just doesn’t have anywhere to go.

Giordona Aviv seems a very good actress—again, as much as she can be with a part that ought to be filled with a protagonist’s actions and dilemmas, but instead is mostly standing around watching the Samuel character wrestle with the demons in his head.

In the end, I’m glad I stuck it out. There are some good moments in this play, and they’re almost all in the second act. The storyline ends with a whimper, not a bang, but then, there weren’t many bangs along the way.

It’s a pity. The basic idea of the play still seems sound to me. But sometimes you need to let your basic chrysalis of an idea shed the cocoon of whatever other ideas you had, and fly where it wants. If the impetus was autobiographical, as several theatregoers around me hypothesized, then sometimes you have let go of that as well.

[more fringe 2011 reviews here]

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