nytheatre.com review by Robin Reed
April 10, 2006
Paris Hilton. Ivana Trump. Kevin Federline.
These are three modern-day folks whose photos can’t seem to stay off the pages of tabloids and TV. Oddly enough, they are famous less for their own achievements than for the fact that they’re attached to someone else (the Hilton Hotel empire, Donald Trump, and Britney Spears, respectively). It’s something with which contemporary society seems to be plagued.
After seeing Little Willy, I realized that mooching off the fame of your name isn’t a phenomenon that’s just sprung up. The Willy of the title is the Irish-born William Patrick Hitler, son of Adolf Hitler’s half-brother.
In pre-war Germany, when the Nazi Empire was on the rise, William Patrick Hitler sought to garner whatever fruits he could, given his famous name. He got a job selling Volkswagens, thanks to the notoriety of his uncle. He rubbed elbows with, befriended, and bedded ladies whom he would never have known without the clout afforded him by his surname. It seems that when Germany was on top of the world, so was Little Willy. Eventually, as we know, it all fell apart. And eventually Willy fled.
I’ve been trying to get my mind around why someone would want to do a theatre piece about William Patrick Hitler. Is it the mere shock value of the name so often associated only with pure evil? An April 2006 New York Times article opens with a brief history of creator/performer Mark Kassen’s more memorable stage appearances, including a gig in gold lame hot pants and another where he was nude and in bed with a woman. But there is nothing that even comes close to that shocking about Willy.
Yet somehow, that’s exactly what makes the show so engaging.
Staged with exquisite simplicity by John Gould Rubin, the piece flows beautifully, set against a backdrop of Willy’s written petition to FDR for asylum in the states. The letter guides the narrative, offering the perfect historical segues into the real and imagined life that Kassen has found and created for Willy.
Kassen breathes the perfect amount of life into Willy. On paper, young Hitler is famous solely for being famous and seems to turn on a dime to slither into whatever situation he fancies. He isn’t exactly a historical hero, but Kassen’s performance makes him impossibly charming. Roxanna Hope, cleverly noted in the program as “Et. Al,” plays a handful of ladies that Willy loves and leaves. She is most powerful as a woman willing to let Willy have his way with her because she believes he can convince Uncle Adolf to release her son who was taken to the camps.
Speaking of the camps, I should make special note of the temperance with which the topic of the Holocaust is handled here. Kassen’s script sticks to Willy and uses historical references sparingly and only in terms of how they explain his place in the world without judgment. This is hugely successful in painting Willy as a person lost in a big huge world, a world in which his relative was making a huge mess. The piece ends with a few “where are they now” slides, touching briefly on the still-living descendents of William Patrick Hitler. They live on Long Island. There was a definite chill that passed through the audience on the note that his three sons have made a pact to end their infamous bloodline. This information was a total jaw-dropper. I applaud Kassen’s choice to use it only as a footnote to his intense character study.