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Theatre in Review: Kingfishers Catch Fire (Irish Rep)/(A)loft Modulation (ART/New York Theatres)

Top: Haskell King, Sean Gormley. Photo: Carol Rosegg. Bottom: PJ Sosko, Christina Toth. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Two recently opened historical dramas have very different concerns and viewpoints but they share a skeptical opinion of the post-World War II years, which, both playwrights suggest, weren't a haven of peace and prosperity as is sometimes advertised. Kingfishers Catch Fire whisks us to an Italian castle where a Vatican prelate and an SS officer undergo two rounds of moral boxing. Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty, working out of Vatican City, managed to hide thousands of prisoners of war -- Allied soldiers and Jews alike -- while helping them to escape. Herbert Kappler, chief of police in occupied Rome, presided over the Ardeatine Caves massacre, in which 335 Italian civilians were murdered in reprisal for a resistance attack that killed 33 members of the city's SS garrison. An odd couple, to be sure, they were long known to each other; as playwright Robin Glendinning suggests, their wartime rivalry spurred a strange mutual understanding.

Indeed, in Kingfishers Catch Fire, O'Flaherty can't stay away from the prison cell where Kappler has been consigned for life. (He escaped to Germany in 1970, dying a few months later.) It is 1948 and Europe is roaring back to life, but each man faces bleak prospects. The locked-up Kappler has lost his family; his wife has turned away and his son thinks his father died a hero in the war. O'Flaherty, named "The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican" by the press -- in one especially breathless caper, he escaped the Nazis via a coal chute from the home of a confederate, disguised as a fuel supplier -- has won only enemies in the Curia and his career is rapidly going south. As Kappler insinuates -- and as the priest tries to deny -- both are nostalgic for the thrill of wartime intrigue.

Indeed, they can't stop reliving the past while expertly probing each other's scar tissue. Kappler insists, fiercely, that his imprisonment is unjust, as the superiors who forced him to commit mass murder have gone free. (They have political friends among the Allies; her has none.) The monsignor unsympathetically notes that Kappler supported the regime behind the Final Solution. Kappler details his vocal opposition to this monstrous program -- something that, one suspects, few Nazi officers attempted -- and, striking one of his companion's sorest nerves, wonders why Pius XII did nothing to stop it. The image Kappler presents, of a truck passing by a silent papal residence filled with Jews crying out for mercy, is one not easily forgotten. O'Flaherty's stammering response speaks volumes.

Glendinning uses both characters to examine the gray areas of a city besieged in wartime, a time and place in which no one's conscience was spared, and no decision came without evil consequences. (The playwright does persuade that each man, in his own way, went rogue -- Kappler trying to soften his commanders' bloodlust and O'Flaherty defying his hypocritical superiors by risking his neck to save lives.) Just when one fears that Kingfishers Catch Fire is skating toward a dicey argument of moral equivalency, Kappler gives his detailed remembrance of the Ardeatine killings. In the bleakest possible indictment of war, he notes how he whittled down the number of proposed victims to 335 from the initial demand of 1,700.

Kingfishers Catch Fire lacks a central action around which to wrap the sparring -- the playwright is content to let his characters circle each other, scoring points and retreating from time to time -- and he arguably pivots too quickly away from questions of Vatican culpability toward a broader, more metaphysical line of inquiry, suggesting that the existence of God is disproved by the charnel house of war. Still, the facts as presented are gripping and Kent Paul's production benefits from two strong performances. Sean Gormley's O'Flaherty, despite his calculatedly affable manner, is ruthless in his pursuit of Kappler, even as he questions his own motives. Haskell King captures Kappler's brutal stoicism, whether ripping up a photo of the son he will never see again or purposely scandalizing O'Flaherty with a joke about God, on vacation, ignoring the crimes of his creatures. The actor's handling of the climactic speech, a moment-by-moment account of the massacre, leaves the auditorium in stunned silence. His roundup of victims, chosen from various prisoners and/or Jews about to be shipped to the death camps, represents a calculus almost too awful to bear.

The production, staged in the Irish Rep's tiny downstairs theatre, has a sensible design, dominated by Edward Morris' appropriately bleak set, with solid contributions from lighting designer Matthew McCarthy, costume designer Linda Fisher, and sound designer Rob Rees. Even if Kingfishers Catch Fire -- the title is taken from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, that experienced explorer of spiritual thickets -- is less a fully realized play than a pair of powerfully written roles, it is filled with ideas capable of keeping one up at night. The war may be over, but inside these two men it still rages.

On the home front, (A)loft Modulation is a jazz fable set in the seedy environs of Sixth Avenue and Twenty-Eighth Street, as the Eisenhower Fifties give way to the Kennedy Sixties. Inhabiting adjoining apartments -- they're more like squats -- are Myth Williams, a photographer locked in a love-hate relationship with his sometime employer Life Magazine and gripped by a mania for creating photo "essays" -- and Way Tonniver, who teaches jazz composition at Juilliard by day when not hosting all-night jam sessions. The joint is jumping, and the doors are permanently unlocked, which explains the procession of junkies and prostitutes who wander in, boosting any loose items to finance their next hits. The tumult is captured by Myth, who has a reel-to-reel tape machine permanently set on "record," picking up hot licks, smack talk, radio broadcasts, cats in heat -- you name it.

It's a peculiar setup to be sure, but one rooted in New York history. The playwright, Jaymes Jorsling, is riffing off the Jazz Loft, once occupied by W. Eugene Smith -- a photographer who, like Myth, shot an intensive study of Pittsburgh -- and Hall Overton, a Juilliard teacher and crony of Charles Mingus, Bill Evans, Zoot Sims, and Thelonious Monk. You won't find any of them in (A)loft Modulation; Jorsling's cast of characters is a raging band of misfits who snort drugs, furiously make music, and rage at the bourgeoisie. The combination of this louche crew and an onstage jazz band made me wonder if the playwright isn't paying homage to The Connection, Jack Gelber's 1959 drugs-and-blue-notes-peppered drama of alienated hepcats.

The playwright's bottom-up view of this rattletrap bohemia is richly atmospheric, aided by Troy Hourie's set design, a network of raw spaces crammed with clutter, aided by Adam J. Thompson's video design -- of tape reels, police cars, musicians, and Pittsburgh streets, projected on every available surface -- and Andy Evan Cohen's sound design, which includes news reports about the Cuba Missile Crisis and the Kennedys in Dallas, along with a radio broadcast by Edna St. Vincent Millay. (Elivia Bovenzi's costumes are solid period creations, although the noirish lighting, by Becky Heisler McCarthy is a tad dim for its own good.) The band -- featuring Jonathan Beshay (saxophone), Kayvon Gordon (drums), and Adam Olszewski (bass) -- is aces, offering revved-up renditions of "The Way You Look Tonight" and other evergreens along with Gerald Clayton's original compositions.

This is all to the good, because underneath the tumult -- the jazz riffs, verbal smackdowns, steamy sex, drug taking, blaring radios, scrolling images of contact sheets, and much more -- it's hard to detect much of a dramatic beat. Or maybe there's too much of one: (A)loft Modulation teems with so many plot lines that they crowd each other out. Myth's bitter, late-night telephone rants and scraps with angry hookers; Way's frustrated musical ambitions; and the downward spiral of the gifted, neurotic, hopelessly hooked drummer, Reggie, are only a few of the threads woven into this ragged tapestry. The playwright also throws in a dispute about authorship of a classic composition and a contemporary framing plot in which Steve, a middle-aged salaryman, his job hanging by a thread, finds Myth's loft - which, inexplicably, contains his possessions fifty years after his departure - and holes up there, obsessively listening to the old tapes. (You can imagine what his wife thinks about that.) It's a smorgasbord of angst, served up undercooked; the dialogue sounds less like real conversation and more like a set of manifestos ripped from an underground magazine. And there are far too many puns on a certain magazine title. ("You quit Life?" "Life tried to take advantage of me.") Good thing he didn't work for Life's sibling publication; I'm sure we'd learn that Time waits for no man.

Christopher McElroen's direction keeps things moving at a driving pace even when there is no obvious destination. PJ Sosko and Eric T. Miller work hard and well as Myth and Way, although the former character, with his pontificating (not to mention the remorseless abandonment of his family), becomes tiresome and the latter doesn't have enough to do. A couple of supporting performers make stronger impressions, including Elisha Lawson -- skillfully underplaying Reggie's account of inner misery and enacting a harrowing, drug-induced seizure -- and Christina Toth as Skyler, a working girl who takes selfies while astride her johns. There's plenty of talent onboard, but the play is little more than a series of variations in search of a theme. Thank God for the music! -- David Barbour

(4 October 2019)

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