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In 1987, Silence = Death posters began appearing in New York City. They featured white letters on a black background with a pink triangle floating above, the symbol of a new organization that would become ACT UP, dedicated to drawing attention to the AIDS crisis. The pink triangle originated under the Nazis, a way of marking gay prisoners in the death camps. It wasn’t a symbol that was widely known until playwright Martin Sherman stumbled across it in the mid-seventies when he met journalist Richard Plant, who was trying to get a book on the subject published. The pink triangle became the bedrock on which he built Bent, one of the most influential gay-themed plays of the modern era, now in its first major U.S. revival since its premiere in 1979. Moises Kaufman’s exemplary direction and outstanding minimalist design by Beowulf Boritt elevate an alternately harrowing and poignant play that remains fraught with structural and dramaturgical issues.
A riser makes a stage upon the stage where just enough threadbare furnishings suggest a cheap flat in 1930’s Berlin. Rudy (Andy Mientus) has been awake for awhile, watering his plants and preparing breakfast after a night on the town. His partner, Max (Patrick Heusinger), is nursing a hangover while wondering what he did last night. Teasing and chastising, Rudy hints at various outrages, one of which comes marching in, fully naked, stretching with his penis only inches from the face of the recumbent Max. He is Wolf (Tom Berklund), and is — due to Max’s drunken elaborations — under the illusion that his new friends are rich. They quickly disabuse him of this notion, noting that even as they speak, the landlord is banging on the door, no doubt demanding overdue rent. In the bat of an eye, their world changes when the Gestapo comes storming in and Wolf’s throat is slit before them. Running for their lives wearing only bathrobes, Max and Rudy suddenly have bigger problems than paying the rent on time.
While Max was out raising hell, the Nazis were doing the same in the 1934 purge known as the Night of the Long Knives, through which Hitler consolidated power by eliminating Ernst Rohm, leader of the Brownshirts. In the years that followed, those the Nazis considered undesirables were rounded up, including guys like Max and Rudy. They show up at the nightclub of their friend, Greta (Jake Shears of the Scissor Sisters, in a role played by Mick Jagger in the 1997 film), a cynical cross-dressing chanteuse and family man who gives them a roll of cash only because he’s “made enough off of your kind.” Months turn into years as the fugitives join a throng of refugees living in the forest. Max meets with his Uncle Freddie (Ray Baker), a more discreet homosexual, who has secured him a ticket to Amsterdam, a lifesaving offer he chooses to forego unless Rudy can join him.
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The question seems moot as the two are rounded up in the next scene and put on a boxcar to Dachau. But it isn’t moot — it’s the thematic crux of the play: whether or not Max can go from being a hard partying sybarite to feeling love. “Queers aren’t meant to love,” he says early on, reflecting the free-sex mood of the decade after Stonewall, (which coincidentally occurred on the 35th anniversary of the Night of the Long Knives). “Love didn’t seem to enter the picture on a visible level then,” says playwright Sherman in the notes. “Of course it existed. But the play is as much about internal repression as external.”
Max is tested when he denies knowing Rudy, who is singled out by guards on the train. To prove it, he is ordered to join in beating his partner, which he does, perhaps even administering a deathblow. It takes a lot of internal repression to negotiate such a scene, and Heusinger brims with hidden turmoil, though it’s the one set piece that doesn’t live up to its potential. Because Max must hide his emotions, there seems to be little connection between the two men, draining power from a critical juncture in the play. It is here Bent takes a jarring turn as it ceases to be the story of Max and Rudy, and begins to focus solely on Max.
In Rudy’s place we get a new character as the second act begins: Horst (Charlie Hofheimer), a fellow pink triangle at Dachau. In what seems like a nod to Beckett, the second act is taken up with the two of them moving a pile of rocks back and forth in the newly empty space where the riser used to be. It has since been tipped on its end to create a monolithic guard tower as a backdrop. At this point in the play, the only thing sparser than the set design is the plotting. Gone are the threats of capture and the machinations of escape. In their place is the blossoming relationship between Max and Horst.
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During a periodic rest in which the two are forced to stand side by side (touching is forbidden), their relationship is consummated in a minimalist sex act comprised only of words and fueled by an eager imagination. It stands out as the smartest bit of writing in the play, and Kaufman’s elegant work with Heusinger and Hofheimer maximizes the scene’s impact.
Believing he will be afforded better treatment, Max is assigned a yellow star, and not a pink triangle on his uniform, after committing a horrendous act off-stage. There are no happy endings in Bent, but once Horst is gone, Max comes to the realization that he cannot live without love. His final gesture is to don Horst’s shirt, bearing the triangle for all to see. In 1979, the scene no doubt played as an exhortation to come out of the closet, consequences be damned, and proudly proclaim one’s identity.
In a role that was performed by Ian McKellen in London and later Richard Gere on Broadway, Heusinger makes Max his own. Sherman’s characters react to events, rather than drive the plot, and Max’s transformation from entitled to enlightened is a bit sudden. Still, Heusinger smoothly navigates the material’s rough edges, portraying a self-involved though likeable playboy who is compelled to look into his heart in order to survive. He is given a strong assist by Hofheimer, whose Horst — erudite, wise, patient and kind — shares enough traits with Rudy to help bridge the gap between acts. But Kaufman is the true star of Bent, working its strengths for maximum effect (as with the sex scene), and minimizing its weaknesses, as in the second act, which might have been deadly dull with the change of pace and focus.
Whatever its shortcomings, Bent remains surprisingly current. Its relevance to the eighties is obvious, but Sherman has done a wise thing by employing a gay context to explore the universal truth succinctly captured in the words of poet W.H. Auden: “We must love one another or die.”
Cast: Patrick Heusinger, Andy Mientus, Charlie Hofheimer, Tom Berklund, Hugo Armstrong, Ray Baker, Matthew Carlson, Brionne Davis, Wyatt Fenner, Jake Shears, Bran Slaten, Jonathan B. Wright
Director: Moises Kaufman
Playwright: Martin Sherman
Lighting design: Justin Townsend
Sound design: Cricket S. Myers
Scenic and costume designer: Beowulf Boritt
Presented by: Center Theatre Group
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