Wednesday, January 10, 2007

PLAY: "The Germans in Paris"

Jonathan Leaf's play, The Germans in Paris, has two duels, three revolutionaries, and an adulterous love affair. For all that, it comes across more as a comedy than a serious play, and on top of that, as more of an intelligent play than a rip-roarer. The lines are clever, but often come across as dry or artificial, and the plot's distracted narrative never picks up enough speed for a climax or a denouement. There is much to admire in Leaf's play, for the performances are still sincere and full-bodied and their costumes are as rich as the play wishes to be, but his vision of 1840's France is strikingly out of focus.

First off, the story revolves around Heinrich Heine, who may be a poet in real life, but is here portrayed as a smug, pinched, and pared aristocrat (even though he is written as a womanizing socialite). Jon Krupp is engaging in the role, but far from poetic in his language or carriage. Rather, he makes Heine sullen and untouchable: when he gets into a duel with the bellicose Solomon Strauss he seems almost apathetic; after being shot, he laughs and fires his own gun into the air. It's the way we would expect the more lively character, Karl Marx, to act; instead, Marx comes off as an arrogant, self-serving man, filled so much with revolutionary fervor that he scarcely knows how to care for his own family, let alone fight his own duels. Leaf's script makes the likable Ross Beschler portray Marx as a villain and the reserved Krupp's Heine into a hero, and The Germans in Paris, like its title, works best as a fine display of paradox.

What Leaf has done, and what I fear director James Milton only emphasizes, is to wrap this paradox not in a riddle or an enigma, but in the cloying, bumbling presence of Richard Wagner, a role hammed up by Brian Wallace. Wagner has little to offer the play in terms of ideas -- the character is an egotist, and spends most of his time talking about his struggles trying to publish music. Alone, Wagner's pitiable existence might make for an enjoyable farce, coupled with two other characters screaming for attention, his plight means little and, in fact, gets little attention from the writer or director. The only plot followed through on is that of Heine's affair with Mme. Morisot (a charming Angelica Torn); even his marriage to Mathilde (Kathryn Elisabeth Lawson) comes across as no more than dramatic effect.

It takes Tom Stoppard nine hours and three plays to tell the story of his Russian intellectuals in The Coast of Utopia, and while we can all aspire to do better than that, two hours is perhaps not enough time to do anything of great weight or import in The Germans in Paris.

[First posted to the New Theater Corps on 1/9]

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