By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
"In times like these, Hans Johst can be a very dangerous man," warns Meta about the theater's expedience- and career-driven director, whom O'Keefe based on actor-director Gustav GrÃ¼ndgens, the inspiration for the central character in Klaus Mann's novel Mephisto.
Behind the scenes, Jewish Meta has been replaced; behind the scenery, the Third Reich is unfolding.
As more and more Jewish talent flees to Switzerland, little Oskar lands the play's leading male role, Petruchio. Rather than leave, pugnacious Meta becomes his acting coach, leading to the play's most fascinating scenes — Genet-like reversals of public and private roles. For Oskar is a kindhearted mediocrity. Meta's most scathing criticism during his practice sessions is that she can still see goodness in his eyes. To be Petruchio or Hamlet in Nazi-occupied Germany, his goodness and mild temperament must be replaced with unmitigated striving for ascendancy and control. She shows him how it's done, until, from the depths of his sweet, mundane soul, she unleashes a monster — an Ã¼ber-theme that strikes home hard with nauseating pertinence to times like these.
O'Brien and Weisser have been playing this duet for months now, and it shows. (The play transferred to the Odyssey after premiering at Padua Playwrights Productions last year.) Perhaps O'Keefe, as director, deserves credit for the performers' symphonic range of tone, texture and cadence, but it's difficult to believe that the actors haven't taken over the conducting by now.
As Weisser tries to sustain decorum while chatting on the phone with somebody from the theater, the mercurial O'Brien mocks him from the other side of the room, aping his tone, impersonating the voice at the other end of the line, bursting into shrieks of laughter. A later scene is devoted to the trauma of getting her out of their apartment to the police station for an ID card. Now understandably an agoraphobic, she collapses at the door. And so she careens from cruel self-assurance to emotional collapse, while Weisser, in a beautifully observed performance, ensnares the stoic determination of a shallow actor trying to find some depth.
O'KEEFE'S PLAY IS A DOMESTICATED AND MORE literal variation on Ionesco's Rhinoceros, in which provincial French villagers enigmatically transform into pachyderms; the central character struggles to resist as he watches the thickening of his neighbors and lover. But such French abstraction could just as easily be about conformity in general.
O'Keefe draws a considerably more direct parallel between the Teutonic and American empires, though he's not the first American dramatist to do so. Tony Kushner's A Bright Room Called Daysimilarly draws on a group of thespians in democratic, Weimar-era Berlin, rife with arts and culture, and what happens to them when the sky starts falling. But Kushner was trying to comment on the way the Reagan administration was ignoring America's AIDS epidemic and its concentration-camp dimensions of horror. Even Kushner eventually conceded that his parallel was a stretch. He was, as usual, ahead of his time. Unfortunately, O'Keefe is not.
TIMES LIKE THESE | Written and directed by JOHN O'KEEFE Presented by PADUA PLAYWRIGHTS and the ODYSSEY THEATER ENSEMBLE | At the ODYSSEY THEATER, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles | Through March 30