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Strong Suits

Choke Point: Gareth Saxe and Koan McMurtrey (Photo by Craig Schwartz)

What’s in a uniform? Do clothes break the man? The answers to these questions lie at the heart of iWitness, Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol’s grim historical drama about an Austrian farmer who, during World War II, refused to wear Wehrmacht grays, even in a non-combat role. As far as conscript Franz Jägerstätter (Gareth Saxe) is concerned, any garment that acknowledges the Third Reich’s authority is too shameful to put on.

As the play opens, we find Jägerstätter in a Berlin jail cell, where he passes the time prior to his court-martial assiduously polishing officers’ boots and scrubbing latrines. (A German uniform, hung on a rack, looms over the prisoner and his routine.) In the meantime, a stream of visitors (psychiatrist, army friends, prison guard and priest) vainly try to persuade him to escape the guillotine by becoming an army janitor or hospital orderly.

Viewers will immediately be struck not only by the farmer’s moral tenacity but also by the uncharacteristic indulgence of his Nazi captors, who, instead of simply gassing Jägerstätter before lunch, provide him with a full-blown hearing complete with defense counsel. This Everyman’s submission is so important to the Germans’ imperial legitimacy that they are amenable to putting him on a mop-and-broom detail in exchange for his cooperation, while the prison shrink (Joan McMurtrey) suggests a Catch-22 escape. (If he refuses to serve, he must be mad, and if he’s mad, he can’t be held responsible for his actions.)

Jägerstätter’s obstinacy is fueled by his native country’s annexation by Germany and his certainty that a holocaust is secretly unfolding just up the rail lines. His intuition about death camps was confirmed soon enough — crimes that even today ensure that no uniform, insignia or regalia is more repellent to the Western eye than those belonging to Hitler’s Germany. In a way, however, Europe’s 20th century was the century of uniforms — a time when people literally wore their ideology and nationalism on their sleeves. Over the years, those uniforms have become embarrassing liabilities whenever their wearers (including Kurt Waldheim and Pope Benedict XVI) have surfaced in photographs from the war.

Sobol’s play was written in Hebrew and in the trickier tongue of political metaphor; director Barry Edelstein capably translates both languages at the Mark Taper Forum, though with mixed results.

“When a leader allows himself to break the laws of humanity,” Jägerstätter says, “it is the duty of every citizen to break the leader’s rules.” He immediately repeats the line two more times, not so much for the benefit of his accusers, but for Taper audience members, in case they missed the innuendo connecting Jägerstätter’s conscientious objections with Israel’s army refuseniks and with Americans living after 9/11. Still, Edelstein gives iWitness a handsome production, mostly due to Neil Patel’s viscerally stark cell set and Russell Champa’s gloomy lighting plot, along with Jan Hartley’s monochromatic projections, which flicker, Zentropa-like, on the upstage wall behind the actors.

Actor Gareth Saxe has the haunted, existential look of what might be called 20th Century Man — a thoughtful being always responsible for his actions yet ever aware of their ultimate futility, whose face is weathered by doubt. Yet doubt is unknown to Saxe’s character, and this becomes a problem for the play, because without it, Jägerstätter is only shadowboxing with the visitors, whose arguments he easily knocks down. It’s bad enough that Jägerstätter has no worthy adversary to debate, no Mephistophelean character brimming with sophistry and corrosive wit; but there is also no one in the story in a position to change his mind, and a play without decision-making can only travel so far on its metaphors.

It’s no surprise that in this bloodless evening, the most wrenching testimony comes from Jägerstätter’s guard (J.B. Blanc), when he describes in clinical detail the descent of the guillotine blade and the two endless seconds during which the condemned, their eyes facing the steel, have second thoughts about their actions. Perhaps the ultimate problem is that Sobol’s martyr becomes a statue instead of a flesh-and-blood character. Sometimes the greatest tribute a writer can bestow upon a hero is a little doubt.

Playwright Katy Hickman has no such qualms with her portrayal of Robert S. McNamara (the “S” is for Strange) in Bright Boy: The Passion of Robert McNamara, now running at the Ensemble Studio Theater L.A. She takes the former Vietnam War defense secretary, dressed in his best suit, and unceremoniously plunks him down into an absurdist mud flat of political vaudeville. We meet McNamara (Garrett M. Brown) in 1995 when, at age 78, he arrives at Mills College to attend a memorial for the former dean of the women’s school, Dean Rusk, who presided at the State Department when Mac worked for presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

Things start inauspiciously for McNamara when the vintage Ford Falcon (actually, a wheelbarrow) that he and a student aide (Graham Sibley) arrive in bogs down in rain-sodden earth. But, as David Halberstam and other writers have noted, McNamara — an analytical and literary anticommunist who was as much at home in the outdoors as at a cocktail party — embodied the can-do confidence of the New Frontier. The former Ford Motor Co. chairman who spearheaded the phenomenal Falcon’s development characteristically welcomes the hike up the hill to Rusk’s memorial — and to a series of flashbacks detailing his early support for the war in Southeast Asia. These moments, spent with Kennedy (Sibley) and LBJ (Hugo Armstrong), are factual but broadly antic scenes that take their cues from the San Francisco Mime Troupe — Mac playing football with the Kennedy clan at Hyannis Port, taking orders from LBJ as the Stetson-wearing president moves his bowels on a toilet seat.

At the Rusk memorial, McNamara meets a bitter wartime amputee (Armstrong), who happens to be the brother of the college dean (Keliher Walsh). Added to this mix is a trio of students (Corbett Tuck, Tracey A. Leigh and Kim Chueh), who busy themselves with a vaguely described project that involves tunneling underneath Mills. In some ways the three young women are Hickman’s most striking invention — student activists who have only the faintest grasp of the passionate protests that swirled around McNamara’s policies so many years before. The play’s moral point of departure is McNamara’s 1995 book, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, in which he admits his wartime belief that U.S. policy in Southeast Asia was completely wrong — even though he kept his opinions so deeply private that they had no impact on foreign policy. This was McNamara’s cardinal sin of omission and why, despite his subsequent attempts, as head of the World Bank, to alleviate Third World hunger, he became such a reviled figure in his twilight years.

Bright Boy is a show with shifting focuses, and before long it’s apparent that Hickman, despite her skill for mixing political observation with slapstick, has thrown too many ingredients into her brew to make it jell. (Even the enigmatic dig being conducted by the three students includes a subplot.) The most obvious symptom of this urbane sprawl might be Brown’s performance as McNamara — a simplistic turn, directed by James Eckhouse, that ignores the character’s complexity. Still, Eckhouse’s production is sincere without becoming earnest, and superbly aided by scenic designer Laura Fine’s tumble of decrepit file cabinets, camouflage netting and a floor painted as a giant punch card.

Perhaps Sobol and Hickman should switch their presentations by making Jägerstätter’s final days a series of burlesque skits and McNamara’s ordeal a tone poem of regret. Those old enough to remember the Tonkin Gulf summer of 1964 will never forget the image of McNamara, pointing to a map of Vietnam, indicating where the bombs had just fallen — and would continue to fall for the next eight years. Discovering why McNamara lacked Jägerstätter’s strength of character to put himself on the line for his changing beliefs would be worth the admission price for both plays.?

iWITNESS | By JOSHUA SOBOL | At the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn. | Through May 21 | (213) 628-2772

BRIGHT BOY: The Passion of Robert McNamara | By KATY HICKMAN | Ensemble Studio Theater L.A. at the Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave., Venice | Through May 7 | (213) 368-9552

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