Theater Review - Bent, not broken

History and romance elevate Nazi-era drama

Martin Sherman’s play Bent depicts the persecution of homosexuals during the Holocaust, so Dachau isn’t just the notorious concentration camp. It’s also a metaphor for the closet. In the Actor’s Express production, Daniel May plays Max Beber, a gay prisoner passing as a Jewish one. He wears a yellow star to avoid the mistreatment of the “queer” inmates, marked by pink triangles.

Sherman’s play premiered in the late 1970s and reflects the gay activism of the period. At a time when America wrangles with attempts to legalize gay marriage, Bent’s calls to action and “visibility” lack the same urgency of 25 years ago. But as a rich, riveting historical drama and defiant romance, Bent remains an enthralling show.

Megan Monaghan directs a tearful and shocking production, which comes as no surprise given the material’s brutality. But Bent’s humor catches you off guard. It’s no Springtime for Hitler, but Sherman provides unexpectedly wry relief to the play’s horrors. In Dachau during the second act, Max observes, “We’ll miss the Olympics next month,” and a fellow inmate replies, “I knew there was a reason I didn’t want to be here.”

Bent begins, disarmingly, as a kind of sex comedy set in 1934 Berlin. Young dancer Rudy (an endearing Steve Emanuelson) teases a hung over Max about what — or who — he did the night before. The playfulness dissolves when storm troopers burst in the door. Bent implies that while Max and Rudy fiddled, like the rest of Berlin’s intelligentsia, Germany was burning.

Max and Rudy spend the next two years fleeing across Europe to outrun the Nazi persecution of homosexuals. The two men sharply contrast each other: Rudy naively clings to ideals while Max pragmatically focuses on how to stay alive. Max meets with his closeted uncle (Mark Gray), who calls gay people “fluffs” and explains how conditions have worsened: “They can arrest you for thinking fluff thoughts.” Max tries to make a deal to save Rudy, but the arrangements come too late.

On the train to Dachau and in the camp itself, Bent builds to several terrifying moments, although Monaghan can’t always make Sherman’s stylized dialogue ring true. When Max confesses to fellow inmate Horst (Mitchell Anderson) the atrocities he committed to get his yellow star, the lines are self-consciously reduced to one- and two-word sentences.

Act one ends with the Kat Conley’s clapboard set sliding apart to reveal Dachau’s concrete wall and barbed wire fence. The second act unfolds like a two-character Samuel Beckett work, as Max and Horst must move rocks from one pile to another, and then back again. Max calls the pointless task the least dangerous work in camp, since it only puts their sanity at risk.

As Max and Horst constantly move rocks and seldom make eye contact, Bent turns into an unconventional love story — or at least, for Max, a learning-how-to-love story. Max and Horst make love, after a fashion, by speaking to each other while standing still during their three-minute “rest breaks.” Their conversation unfolds like phone sex, only in public and motionless, and the actors make the exchange both comic and erotic. Horst continually reminds Max that he should wear the pink triangle and take pride in himself, which makes the play’s resolution highly predictable.

May portrays Max as a cynical wheeler-dealer akin to William Holden’s black marketeer in Stalag 17. His voice movingly thickens with emotion during Bent’s most wrenching scenes, yet the actor proves almost too confident, vibrant and tough to make us fear for Max’s fate.

Occasionally Bent’s period details falter. The young actors look like pretenders in their SS uniforms, but fortunately Bryan Mercer’s commandingly arrogant Nazi officer gives gravity to the show’s oppressive villainy. Although Bent’s politics have dated since Sherman wrote the script, the Actor’s Express production affirms that the play is no museum piece.