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Theatre in Review: Hitler's Tasters (New Light Theater Project) /Mother Night (59E59)

Top: Kaitlin Paige Longoria, Hallie Griffin, MaryKathryn Kopp. Photo: Hunter Canning/@huntercanning. Bottom: Gabriel Grilli, Andrea Gallo. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

This past week has produced two very different plays about Nazi Germany. One of the more bizarre facts to emerge about the Third Reich was the existence of a cadre of fifteen adolescent girls who were made to taste Adolph Hitler's food, essentially screening it for poison. Needless to say, these weren't voluntary positions; they were three-times-a-day exercises in controlled terror. In Hitler's Tasters, the playwright Michelle Kholos Brooks zeroes in on three of these young ladies as they put their lives on the line at each meal, remaining at table for an hour after the meal is over, waiting to see if one of them drops over. Because Hitler was a vegetarian with bland tastes, they don't even get anything tasty for their (possibly last) meals.

In the playwright's most imaginative stroke, the girls are rendered as typical early-twenty-first-century teenagers, wielding smartphones, taking selfies, and taking part in games of social one-upmanship. As it happens, this eccentric concept turns out to make a great deal of sense: In their utter state of denial, with their fits of hero worship and (often quite reasonable) hysteria, they fit into the totalitarian world quite nicely.

One minute, they giddily praise each other's looks, posing for photos that, they insist, prove how devastating they are. "You're the glamorous one," Liesel says to Anna. "You look just like Marlene." (The girls are totally gone on Hollywood movie stars, getting an extra thrill out of the fact that they are officially verboten.) Then Hilda, the trio's alpha dog, says, "You know, Anna, I hadn't noticed it before, but from this angle, you almost look like you could be a Jew" -- and a gravelike silence descends, followed by Anna hyperventilating with fear.

We see them sitting at table, bored and nervous, checking their phones as they wait for the fatal hour to pass. At one point, the fed-up Anna announces, "I almost wish one of us would get poisoned, just to break up the monotony" -- a sentiment coldly received by the others. It is obviously the last days of the war, because a furious Hilda says, "Do you know how lucky we are to get such high-quality food? Do you know what our neighbors are eating? Mice and insects." Then there are the "really dreamy" guards to moon over, and they even indulge in fantasies featuring you-know-who. As Liesel notes, "I'm sure the Führer would never force himself on me. I'm not Poland."

As one of the girls disappears and another is brought in, the sense of peril mounts, and Brooks subtly weaves in references that link the last days of the Reich and the forty-fifth American president. Hilda insists, "The Reich tells us what we need to know. Anything else could be fake! Lügenpresse!" -- using the German term for "lying press." When somebody wonders why American stars are so romantic, Hilda explains, "They're soft-hearted, pleasure-seeking and decadent." Horrified at the idea that Jewish tasters might be brought in, Hilda -- sounding rather like an alt-right demonstrator in Charlottesville -- all but shouts, "Our bodies react the way his body reacts. Jews cannot replace us!"

Meanwhile, Hilda's father, a supposedly highly placed officer, has gone missing, Anna must wrestle with the memory of being raped by a German soldier, and, every so often, the thud of footsteps is followed by the opening of a door and the arrival of the next, potentially deadly, plate of food. All of this is rendered with maximum tautness by the director, Sarah Norris, and a quartet of accomplished actresses: Hallie Griffin as the high-strung, neurotic Liesel; MaryKathryn Kopp, giving everything Hilda does a slightly malicious undertone; Kaitlin Paige Longoria, almost painfully innocent as Anna; and Hannah Sturges as Margot, the newcomer, who replaces one of the others and who has a lot to learn about spending one's days on the edge of death.

In addition, An-lin Dauber's stark bunker setting is enough to induce chills all by itself, and, working with a tiny rig, the lighting designer, Christina Tang, gets a remarkable number of distinct looks. Ashleigh Poteat's costumes look perfectly right for the period. Carsen Joenk's sound design mixes unsettling effects with a playlist of contemporary rock, including, "Bitch, I'm Madonna." A funny-creepy exercise that plants some unsettling ideas in one's head about the seductive powers of totalitarianism, Hitler's Tasters reaches a climax when the girls believe Der Führer is going to visit them -- along with, maybe, his dog, Blondi! -- a event preempted by a wrenching twist. This one is an original, and it is loaded from stem to stern with fresh new talents.

Kurt Vonnegut's novel Mother Night is the prison memoir of Howard Campbell, an American by birth who grows up in Germany and -- having begun a career as a playwright and married a Berlin stage star -- declines to flee in 1939. Instead, he stays on as a propagandist -- working for Joseph Goebbels -- making English-language broadcasts designed to undermine the will of the Allies. (One thinks of P. G. Wodehouse, who ended up in a not-dissimilar position.) Campbell is the ultimate apolitical man, preferring, in all things, the path of least resistance; he is less than pleased when Frank Wirtanen, an American, presses him into leaking top-secret information in his broadcasts.

Is Campbell a patriot? A traitor? Something in-between? Hard to say, and the answers only get murkier after the war, when, thanks to circumstance and a little surreptitious help from the US Government, Campbell, holed up in a Greenwich Village attic, hides out from the world, spending his days playing chess with Kraft, the painter who lives downstairs. But Campbell's troubles are only beginning: He is outed, taken up by white supremacists -- including Lionel Jones, a defrocked dentist who publishes a newsletter titled The White Christian Minuteman -- and ensnared in a Soviet plot. And then Helga, his late wife -- or so he thought -- shows up on his doorstep. Or does she?

I was a Vonnegut enthusiast as a young man, but, as I discovered back then, if you read two or three of his books in a row, his bag of tricks lays naked before you. Mother Night has a rangy, twist-filled narrative and an often potent -- if also glib -- sense of humor. What it doesn't have are real characters; the people are stick figures moved around a game board, making sometimes unbelievable choices designed only to illustrate the author's themes. As such, the book is a dicey proposition for the theatre. Brian Katz's adaptation struggles to master a story that jumps around in time, out of order, in fragmented fashion; even if a hugely disproportionate amount of the evening is given over to static narration, Vonnegut's singular comic voice eludes translation. The cast members come and go, almost all of them playing multiple roles, but what comes across on the page as a calculated series of shocks is largely muffled in the theatre, and the book's weakest point, that postwar America may be closer to Nazi Germany than anyone wants to admit, seems even more collegiate and casuistic in this context. Katz eliminated two characters -- the bigoted Father Patrick Keeley and the Black Führer, a Harlem resident who collaborated with the Japanese and is now Jones' driver -- possibly for reasons of political correctness.

Katz also directed, and his slow-moving production lacks distinguished performances. If Gabriel Grilli seems too self-possessed and debonair for the bottom-feeding Campbell, it is probably not his fault; the character barely exists on the page. Everyone else plays the battery of supporting characters with a singular lack of conviction, although I rather liked Andrea Gallo as Wirtanen, here transformed into a woman. The rest of the production, including Daniel Bilodeau's prison set, Zoë Allen's period costumes, Adam Gearhart's lighting, and Julian Evans' original music and sound design, is okay without being inspired. Mother Night, the novel, is a brief, punchy, blackly comic saga designed to blow away conventional notions of morality; the stage version merely drones on, respectably, but with no excitement whatsoever. If I were you, I'd stick to those tragic food tasters instead. -- David Barbour


(11 October 2018)

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