Thursday, July 30, 2015

Reverend's Reviews: Gays vs. Nazis vs. Crypto-Nazis


First performed in 1979, Martin Sherman's play Bent has become regarded as a watershed theatrical exposé of the persecution of homosexuals under the Nazis prior to and during World War II. Given that, it seems odd that despite successful original productions in London and on Broadway in 1982 plus a star-studded film adaptation in 1997, Bent has never had a major stage revival. Not until now that is, and the timing couldn't be more perfect.

Los Angeles' Center Theatre Group (CTG) is presenting the play now through August 23rd at the Mark Taper Forum. Directed by the openly gay Moisés Kaufman, who sat just a few seats away from me and couldn't have been friendlier on opening night July 26th. While Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters (as drag performer Greta) may be the best-known name among the revival's very talented cast, other standouts include Andy Mientus (The Flash's gay nemesis Pied Piper), Charlie Hofheimer (Abe Drexler on Mad Men) and, as the play's conflicted lead Max, Patrick Heusinger (of Broadway's Next Fall and the acclaimed movie Frances Ha).

Bent begins benignly in a gay couple's apartment in 1934 Berlin. Max wakes up with a hangover after a rough night out with Wolf (Tom Berklund), who soon makes an all-nude appearance. Max's partner Rudy (Mientus) takes it all in stride until the moment swastika-bearing military police break in and slaughter Wolf. Max and Rudy subsequently spend two years in hiding until they are apprehended and put on a train headed to the infamous concentration camp at Dachau, where most gay victims of the Nazis were sent. Even before they get there, Max is forced to betray his lover. Horrified and guilt-ridden, Max strikes a bargain with his captors to be designated a yellow star-wearing Jew rather than an even less-regarded, pink triangle-adorned homosexual.

Once at Dachau (a massive, mobile platform does impressive triple duty as the apartment, train compartment and camp guard station), Max makes the acquaintance of unashamedly gay inmate Horst (Hofheimer). Max arranges for Horst to get assigned to his same menial yet relatively safe task of moving a pile of rocks back and forth all day long. The pair gradually fall in love as they spend their days together in the burning sun under constant watch, culminating in a famously touch-free yet hot sex scene as well as terrible sacrifices on both men's parts.

CTG's Bent emerges as a superior production, especially in the wake of many well-intentioned but budget-constricted 99-seat theater stagings over the last 30+ years. Kaufman brings the same unflinching yet compassionate directorial approach he did to such previous gay-themed efforts as The Laramie Project, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and I Am My Own Wife. His cast is excellent, even though some locals are complaining about the hunky physiques sported by some of the actors that are more 21st-century West Hollywood than Hitler-era Germany. Lest one be potentially scared off by the play's grim subject and setting, it was nice to be reminded while watching it of how disarmingly funny much of Sherman's script is.

I also believe it is critical, as we approach the end of this amazing summer in which we have been celebrating the recognition — finally — of marriage equality across the US, that we remember our past and the awful price many of our LGBT predecessors have paid in order for us to have the freedoms we do today. Viewers are visually reminded of them at the conclusion of Bent, when the Mark Taper stage's backdrop becomes filled with stark photographs of gay men and lesbian women who were slaughtered by the Nazis. We can probably pay them no greater tribute than to see Bent, wherever and whenever it is performed now or in the future.

Gore Vidal, the liberal and openly bisexual enfant terrible of American letters, unforgettably denounced his arch-conservative rival William F. Buckley, Jr. as a "crypto-Nazi" at the climax of their televised debates during the 1968 political conventions to determine the Republican and Democratic parties' candidates for the office of President of the United States. Buckley responding by calling Vidal a "queer," a slur he would come to regret. This provocative exchange and many more between the two legendary social commentators are recounted in the engaging documentary Best of Enemies, opening this Friday in Los Angeles and New York.

Buckley and Vidal came from similar, upper-class backgrounds but couldn't have been more different in viewpoints or temperaments (both men have passed away within the last 7 years). I wish the new film, culled from hours of archive footage by directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, went more into their personal upbringings to better understand what made them tick. What becomes clear however is how deeply each man embodied the reactionary values of the 1960's to their division and, in some ways, their detriment. Of note, Buckley was a Roman Catholic who rejected the revisions of the Second Vatican Council earlier that decade and only attended Mass in Latin in schismatic churches as he grew older.

It is also striking how the social and political differences Vidal and Buckley represented endure to this day. Their prime time fracas in 1968 inadvertently succeeded in laying the divide out for all to see and we haven't been able to cover it up since. This can be considered both good and bad especially since, as Best of Enemies implies, the vitriolic fallout planted the seeds of today's no-holds-barred reality TV. Cultural progress or retardation? Watch the doc and decide.

Reverend's Ratings:
Bent: A-
Best of Enemies: B

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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