It’s difficult and rare to come across stories that can illuminate the Holocaust in unfamiliar ways. Bent is such a play, and at the Mark Taper Forum it's getting its first major revival since its 1979 Broadway debut. Though decades have passed since both the play's premiere and the history in question, this production makes the Holocaust visceral and horrifying anew and, what’s more, educational — a testament to Martin Sherman’s powerful writing, Moisés Kaufman’s flawless direction and a host of strong performances.
Taking its name from street slang for “gay,” the play delves into what was virtually unexplored territory when it first appeared: the Nazi regime’s treatment of homosexuals, who were rounded up and forced to wear pink triangles as indications of their so-called deviance (the origin of its emergence as a gay-rights symbol). The play follows the events in Germany from 1934 to 1936 following the Night of the Long Knives, Hitler’s purge of Sturmabteilung (SA) paramilitary members who threatened his power. Over those three days, dozens who were loyal to the SA’s openly gay leader, Ernst Röhm, were executed, and hundreds of others sent to prison camps.
When the lights dim, however, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d wandered into a Noel Coward play, for all its prewar drinking and bad behavior. Max (Patrick Heusinger), a playboy on the outs with his wealthy family, shacks up with his lover, Rudy (Andy Mientus), and whomever else wanders home with him. It’s not until the Nazis appear that the first act starts to take the shape of a more conventional Holocaust narrative, and some disturbing violence rears its head.
If the early terror and persecution feel sickeningly rote — or have you eyeing the car — be cheered that the second act is a revelation. It’s there that, amid some merciful gallows humor, the Dada logic of the camps is revealed, and the play opens up into a stunning journey of self-transformation and love that's all the more potent for its setting.
We meet Horst (Charlie Hofheimer), a pink-triangled prisoner who challenges Max's willingness to abandon his identity for the sake of self-preservation. One of their more interesting discussions centers on whether some of the camp guards might be gay, a possibility Horst resists but that also disrupts our reflexive categories of good and evil. Max himself is not a particularly nice person: Played by Heusinger, he’s at times comically selfish, opportunistic and manipulative, always plying a deal. Persecution for his sexuality has not made him a saint. But like everyone else, he deserves to be a shitty person with the dignity of freedom.
Despite its difficult subject matter, Bent is a masterful piece of theater. Throughout the play, Beowulf Boritt's cleverly designed background grid with a repeating pattern suggests half-swastikas, train tracks or an electrified fence. The stage functions as a mobile, stripped-down set piece before morphing into a looming, malevolent presence.
But Kaufman’s greatest sensibility is for the emotional texture of his characters: One of the play’s indelible scenes, magnificently acted by Heusinger and Hofheimer, has barely any movement. Hugo Armstrong also is compelling as a serene prison guard.
In these warm summer months, it’s tempting to eschew such heavy fare for the likes of Girlfriend, a charming and infinitely lighter gay romance playing at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. But if you’ve never seen Bent, it’s worth letting yourself be freshly devastated by old horrors to witness their redemptive, transformative capacity.
GO! Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; through Aug. 23. (213) 628-2772, centertheatergroup.org.
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