Although its milieu progresses from lurid to horrific, from decadent Berlin drag-queen clubs to the terrors of Dachau, Martin Sherman's "Bent" is finally a love story, and a moving one -- notwithstanding a production, at the Coast Playhouse in West Hollywood, that sometimes sketches what should be fully illustrated.
The title is British slang for homosexual. Sherman, an American (although the drama first won notice in London), has ventured forthrightly into a loaded, explosive subject, the treatment of gays during the Holocaust.
Jews and gypsies were not, the play recalls, the only minorities dispatched to concentration camps by the Nazis. Homosexuals, according to Sherman, were so fiercely despised that one of his Dachau inmates' accounts himself a shrewd dealer for tricking his Nazi captors into believing he is a Jew. Acquiring the yellow Star of David is a step up from the pink triangle the camp's homosexuals must wear.
Over and above its threading of lesser-known historical needles, "Bent" raises some sharply contemporary issues at a time when a worldwide public-health crisis has some people -- some of them distressingly close by -- making loud, ugly noises about isolating homosexuals. Thanks to AIDS, queer bashing seems to be fashionable in some circles; so it was also, Sherman would remind us, with Nazis.
In 1934 Berlin, a young gay couple, Max and Rudy, are on the run after Hitler's purge of Ernst Rohm, his openly homosexual Nazi rival, has suddenly made Germany brutally unsafe for what one character calls "fluffs." As tends to happen in plays about the Holocaust, Max (David Marshall Grant, who has also directed) fails to perceive the situation's gravity until it's too late, and he and Rudy are on a cattle car bound for Dachau.
Max, who's shown a sexual preference for rough stuff ("I know pain's very chic right now," notes Rudy, "but I don't like it"), almost revels in the amorality of Holocaust brutality. He denies his lover, and even participates in Rudy's savage death (there is a good deal of very explicit violence, though this production does not always portray it that stingingly).
At Dachau, Max's glib gifts as a hustler get him the comparative safety of a Jew's star and an apparently favored position, but he becomes enamored with another gay inmate, Horst, a wistful cynic (Peter Frechette), and the relationship that develops between the two is by turns funny, touching, tragic and, finally, in an absurdist way, heroic.
Virtually the entire second act consists of the two camp inmates talking scrumptiously, sometimes touching furtively, while they carry out the Sisyphean chore of carting a pile of heavy rocks endlessly back and forth.
The Godot-like image of futility forms a backdrop to writing that swerves from expressionist arias to quirkily skewed sitcom wit ("I knew there was a reason I didn't want to be here," Horst says dryly when reminded that the Berlin Olympics have started).
It's a striking, surprisingly gripping skein of scenes that are almost black-out sketches, as the two parry and grow together, culminating in their making love without touching in a scene that is as beautifully written as it verbally explicit (this is not, to put it mildly, a show for those who are uncomfortable with depictions of male homosexuality).
For all the horror that swirls around in Sherman's script, the Coast Playhouse production feels tentative, almost flabby at times. The problem isn't terribly hard to find.
Maybe, because he's his own director, Grant can't step back and see that his Max is too soft, that the intensity with which Max "sells" himself to people in the drama isn't there, so his slow, would-be affecting conversion seems slack.
His emotional range extends not much wider than from surly to lustful. In Max's more difficult passages, Grant doesn't often message much more than the words themselves (an elliptically written account of how Max proved his "manhood" to some Nazis by committing necrophilia isn't working; Grant's portrayal of tortured confession reads more like he's stumbling on remembering lines).
As director, too, Grant seems to be pulling his punches. While very efficiently designed (Fred M. Duer sets, Madeline Ann Graneto costumes, Barbara Ling lighting), the production rarely flows with the inexorability and cumulative power the script demands (on the night I saw it, a badly botched lighting cue made a hash of the grandly climactic finale).
Odd, that this "Bent" is mushy up top, since Grant has assembled several first-rank performances, even -- in the case of Frechette's sad romantic -- outstanding. Rudy may be the mincing swish of the first-act's couple, but Tate Donovan has the very precision and clarity Grant is lacking. Richard Frank has an icily withering turn as a practical-minded drag queen, and Ian Abercrombie is a sad, frightened old "fluff" who tries to share his fears with Max.
The play's climax depends heavily on the steely autoeroticism Viggo Mortensen injects as a blank-eyed, quietly sadistic Nazi captain (it's a terrifically forceful performance). But it is Frechette, dry, mournful-faced, constantly in furtive motion, who carries the second act and who makes the ultimate love story so affecting.
"Bent" is sufficiently urgent and affecting a play that you'll wish its first local production was, you should pardon the expression, straighter and truer to the howl and the love the playwright Sherman has woven into it.