nytheatre.com review by Allison Taylor
October 17, 2007
When a critic says that a production company or director is "brave" to have taken on a piece, it's usually a back-handed compliment, implying that the production, despite its bravery, did not live up to the text. I must ask you to not misinterpret my whole-hearted compliment that director Joshua Chase Gold, and the folks at Blue Asphalt Productions, Counting Squares Theatre, and 13th Street Repertory, are brave to take on Martin Sherman's Bent. I can only wish all young theater companies are this brave—and that they succeed as beautifully as this production does.
This 1979 drama centers around Max, a homosexual living a reckless existence in Berlin circa-1934, with his dancer-boyfriend Rudy. When a Nazi soldier bursts into their apartment and kills a gay Storm Trooper whom Max drunkenly had taken home, Max and Rudy must flee before they suffer the same fate. After the two are eventually captured and sent on a train to Dachau, Max meets another gay man, Horst. He has been labeled with a pink triangle and reveals how brutally homosexuals are treated—even more so than the Jewish prisoners.
Bent broke important ground not only as a play depicting gay romantic relationships, but as the first declaration in mainstream culture that homosexuals were victims of the Holocaust. Although the subject matter may be heavy, Bent offers much optimism about the human spirit and, quite touchingly, reveals the necessity of human connection between anyone—straight or gay. But the play's demanding content makes the decision to produce Bent a brave one. Indeed, it has never been revived on Broadway.
Gold, however, does not shy away from creating an unpredictable and menacing world, and he is not afraid to slow down the action to increase the suspense of what's being witnessed. When a Nazi forces Max to punch another prisoner on the train, Max's eyes bulge in disbelief before closing tightly, as his fist pummels deep into the man's stomach. All in one continuous motion, as if he had hit a trampoline, Max ejects himself from the doubled-over man, his arms flailing away as if trying to escape from his own body. But he is simply brought back to repeat the abuse again. This moment is truly devastating, executed with a severe emotional pain to match the physical pain.
You feel that pain so viscerally due to the genuine and simple acting that Gold draws from his cast, led by Ryan Nicholoff as Max. Nicholoff contains an authentic emotional honesty that permits us to see the change in his character, with his stubborn strength gradually giving way to a below-the-surface vulnerability. At the start, Nicholoff's Max could be more of a slippery chameleon—the character is written sometimes as a slimy but charismatic salesman, always “making deals” and charming unsuspecting victims. But more importantly, he never falters from the play's intensity. When he breaks down in the final moments, it feels like flood waters bursting through a strained dam—which is exactly what it should feel like. This is catharsis.
Nicholoff's primary counterparts—Ed Davis as Rudy and Jim Halloran as Horst—perform with likewise expertise. Davis—with his nimble body floating delicately around the stage—is the very embodiment of carefree, unsuspecting happiness, making his fate all the more potent. When he neurotically tends to his plants in his apartment, or (while he and Max are on the run) when he proudly relays that he was able to buy a block of cheese, he brings an unexpected humor to the proceedings. As Horst, the compelling Halloran illustrates the self-preservation and isolation essential to survival in the work camps, his back stiffening and his voice hardening when Max tries to befriend him. But after opening up, he lets his warmth and friendly wit come out, his unabashed smile providing a much-needed tenderness to Max and to us. The supporting cast is also solid all around—with Christopher Worley as a stern and intimidating Nazi captain; Chris Layton as the reckless and naïve man that Max picks up; Ken Scudder, who brings nuance and grace to Max's closeted uncle; and Ronald E. Hornsby as a transvestite whose voice is rich while singing and cynically stinging while advising Max and Rudy.
Although the underscoring during a few key dramatic moments is unnecessarily manipulative, the technical design helps to shape the atmosphere, especially the realistic but practical set by Gold and the lighting by Jessica Burgess—shadowy on the train to Dachau, and glaringly bright at the work camp. These apt touches demonstrate the seriousness and dedication of Gold and his team. I just hope that New York's theatergoers are this brave too.