While heartfelt, director Fred Nuccio’s production of Martin Sherman’s “Bent” at Mid-City Theatre flounders on its inability to craft a sense of despair through its production values, honor the imperatives of its script or create realistic performances with leads Kyle Wood and Christopher Ramage.
Despite featuring the talents of gifted supporting actors like Bob Edes Jr., Michael Sullivan and Levi Hood, “Bent” fails as a production because it is unable to project the horror of the Third Reich’s growing animus toward homosexuality.
Nuccio’s production design is caught between a fully realized event and a more minimalist streamlined offering. By picking neither approach, it ends up being a half-measure on both counts.
The director employs just enough detail to limit the viewer’s imagination but not enough technical acumen to transport the audience into the world of the play.
Taking place in Nazi Germany roughly between 1934 and 1936, Sherman’s “Bent” begins on the eve of “The Night of the Long Knives” a bloody purge of Hitler’s political rivals and concludes just after the Berlin Olympics.
It follows the machinations of ne’er-do-well scion Max (Wood) to escape the encroaching darkness of a world where being gay is considered even more despicable than being Jewish.
Max’s world of shady deals, questionable trysts and a problematic love with dancer Rudy (a quietly effecting Hood) comes crashing down around him when the SS turn its murderous intent to the homosexual population.
After giving us a sweeping vision of nightclubs, backstage dressing rooms and the collapse of Weimar culture, “Bent” then localizes into the concentration camp of Dachau where Max schemes his way out of gay status, into a Jewish star and inside the heart of fellow prisoner Horst (Ramage).
Max’s survivalist instincts land him in the absurd, but relatively manageable, situation of moving rocks in a labor yard. Calling in favors and hustling in his few free moments, Max secures the company of Horst to help him in the pointless endeavor.
The rules of the yard are simple and articulated numerous times: Horst and Max are to move the pile from one side of an enclosed yard to another, keep the stack neat and only break for three minutes while standing. Furthermore, they are to minimize their interactions, avert their eyes from contact and never lag in their efforts.
There is a certain element of Samuel Beckett that needs to haunt the proceedings with the two characters struggling to maintain their humanity under an ever-watchful eye.
But those mandates are simply ignored, and, given the way Wood and Ramage behave, they would be shot within the first 15 minutes of the second act.
They turn to reply to one another, raise their voices constantly and make no effort to conceal the fact they are communicating. Only the densest of guards would not realize the two have fallen deeply in love.
A viewer who understands what is at stake will be puzzled at first by Wood and Ramage’s behavior before moving toward frustration at director Nuccio’s staging.
Initially, every time they turned their heads, I was terrified for them until I realized there was no sense of threat. The lack of stakes deadens the pace of the play and makes the entire affair monotonous. Toward the conclusion, Edes’ return as a terrifyingly polite Nazi captain adds a layer of jolting menace, but by then, it is too late. We are only perplexed as to why swifter punishment wasn’t meted out at an earlier moment.
More morally problematic is the physical condition of the two leads.
Both actors are in peak health and no effort is made to conceal it. Each sports an able physique and the scenes without their shirts give lie to their supposed reality.
Furthermore, their figures contradict Sherman’s text that insists Max is in better physical condition than the slowly sickening Horst. In reality, Ramage is the larger, more robust man, and it is very difficult to suspend disbelief during the conversations where fitness is discussed.
Unintentionally, the production’s visual elements serve to distance us from the actual horror of the moment. In doing so, “Bent” becomes unworthy of the very people for whom the play so eloquently speaks.