From Mediocre to Monster

Photo by Neil France

WE'VE COME A LONG WAY SINCE CABARET AND The Sound of Music. Remember when the sight of a Nazi Brown Shirt on a stage or screen would elicit dual titillations of disgust and indignation? The Nazis — make that the entire German population — were some incomprehensible, alien tribe that we were trying, without much luck, to fathom. How could they be so belligerent and so docile at the same time? How could they let Hitler rise? Brown Shirts onstage afforded us the opportunity to congratulate ourselves that fascism had so little to do with us, that we were more or less a just people, as continentally removed from the perversions of the Third Reich as from the nations that capitulated to it. Notwithstanding a few incidental detours from our righteous democratic path — Jim Crow laws, Japanese internment camps, Indian reservations and so on — America's Constitution towered as the oldest living document of guiding laws and principles, a template for emerging democracies the world over.

In the spring of 1965, when the film The Sound of Music was first released, we were still basking in what used to be called American optimism. The Vietnam War had not yet stirred much disillusion at home. And though the Bill of Rights was always a nuisance for local police, it had been about 10 years since Senator Joseph McCarthy tried to dismantle it under the dubious sanction of homeland security. The civil rights movement was soaring, and we were a nation that would soon be landing men on the moon. Our long, tail-finned sedans were icons of commerce, technology and confidence. And there, on our movie screens, against a backdrop of swastikas fluttering from old Austrian buildings, Julie Andrews escorted a large and lovably eccentric family of singing children — the boys dressed in shorts and lederhosen — up the mountain, over a pass, to Switzerland (which we all knew was really America), to a kind of freedom that we could take for granted.

My neighbor in Sonoma County watched The Sound of Music in a Sebastopol movie house 16 times between April and October 1965. It offered the reassurance of denial to folks who must have intuited, even then, that something about our country was adrift. In dark rooms filled with flickers of light, the terror of a Nazi occupation was like a dream far, far away. And that distance of time and geography was comforting.

FOUR DECADES LATER, JOHN O'KEEFE'S NEW biographical play, Times Like These (in an extended run at the Odyssey Theater), has exactly the opposite effect. Set in Berlin at the close of the Weimar era, it too contains a scene with an actor center stage in a German S.A. uniform. But the contempt inspired by that image is anything but removed or vicarious. This year in particular, with the Bush administration having walked away from environmental and nonproliferation treaties while rationalizing pre-emptive nuclear strikes against nations that have not attacked us, with the Patriot and Total Information acts threatening to lay waste to our Bill of Rights, with the rule book for global diplomacy being shredded before our eyes, a Brown Shirt on an intimate stage is too close for almost anybody's comfort.

Trapped in her Berlin apartment by an officially sanctioned anti-Semitic curfew, a German actress named Meta (Laurie O'Brien) — a fading star, a secular Jew raised as a Protestant — asks her devoted Aryan husband, Oskar (Norbert Weisser), whom she is coaching for an upcoming appearance as Hamlet in the state theater, "Tell me what you know." Oskar answers with growing intensity:

First the election without a mandate: then the catastrophe: the enemy, then the scapegoat. Indignation follows emergency. Fear turns to anger, anger to revenge. The objective is to create a state of continuous emergency. When the state of emergency is over we can afford to question. It is never over. In the terror of confusion we must seek solidarity, find our basic values. We clean up our streets, Enlist our neighbors as informers. "This shall not happen again. We will strike back." Fortinbras has taken Poland and now he's taking Denmark . . . Hitler is marching to Czechoslovakia. It has begun.

This little speech embodies the play's brilliance — its ability to juggle three worlds with such dexterity that they look like one. The "catastrophe" of the second line refers, in a single word, to the murder of Hamlet's father, to the burning of the Reichstag and to 9/11. Every historical reference emerges as a breezy allegory for another. And so, tiny stitches of detail about two German actors (the only characters to appear on the stage) keep cross-threading as John O'Keefe weaves a massive offstage quilt that drapes from Goering and Goebbels to Kate and Petruchio, from Padua to Elsinore, from Washington to Baghdad. And in every fold lies some quest for domination, along with its emotional fallout.

The third in a series of short scenes, all set in the living room, shows Meta having just been cast as Kate in The Taming of the Shrew at the Prussian State Theater, while Oskar has landed, as usual, some incidental supporting role. He doesn't mind, but his lack of ambition vexes her. By Scene 4 (a few minutes later) we learn that rehearsals have been delayed due to "casting problems."

"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 Gründgens, 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 über-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 Day similarly 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

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