The beagle has landed

The Master Race

By Steve Gold and S. Greene
Directed by Bill Wood
American Theatre of Actors
314 W. 54th Street (581-3044)
Non-union production (closes June 20)
Review by Doug DeVita

The Master Race, an ambitious new play by Steve Gold and S. Greene, wants so much to be a chilling, powerful portrait of Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler before they evolved into the monsters they became that the effort deserves applause, if not the result. Set in Rome in the 1930s, it culminates in Mussolini's ill-fated meeting with the newly elected German chancellor. Theoretically, this is riveting stuff, and there are some beautifully written passages, particularly an opening monologue for Mussolini that sets the stage for an intense drama. But in their attempt to portray events that prefigured one of the darkest periods of this century, Gold and Greene pack so many ideas and characters into nine brief scenes that the play never delivers on its initial promise, the central idea getting lost in all of the minutiae. The actual meeting between Il Duce and Der F¸hrer is relegated to one scene late in the second act, the rest of the play being devoted to less interesting characters and plot mechanics that remain unresolved.

To make matters worse, whatever potential is present (and despite the overcrowded dramaturgy, there is plenty), it was decimated by the substandard production. Director Bill Wood approached the work without subtlety, turning the material into a turgid melodrama that bore as much resemblance to Italy between the wars as a front lawn in Bay Ridge. What could have crackled with tension was instead labored and dull, without historical perspective or firm point of view about its characters and situations, the penultimate scene between Mussolini and Hitler becoming unintentionally hilarious when Ehren Ziegler, as Hitler, shouted passages from Mein Kampf with cartoon fervor. In fact, Wood's casting throughout, with one exception, was fatally inappropriate. Only Rachel Millet seemed at ease, making an intelligent, albeit brief, appearance as Mussolini's naive, headstrong daughter Edda. As for the rest of the cast, individual performances got lost in heavy-duty histrionics, everyone acting up a storm in lieu of any real understanding of the people, period or culture they were asked to interpret. In addition, the cast (again with the exception of Ms. Millet) displayed an impressive lack of vocal technique, garbling, swallowing and all too often forgetting their lines with a rampant disregard for the authors' words. They showed an equally impressive melange of dialects, ranging from clichÈd Italian and German to a misplaced rendition of The Queen's English -- not to mention garden-variety Queens English.

Mr. Wood was also responsible for the production design. The simple set efficiently defined place and time, but the lighting was poor, failing to establish shifting moods or character. An attempt at period costuming was partially successful, the women dressed with a passing nod to the fashions of the times, the men outfitted with something less than '30s Italian style.

However, there is enough compelling writing in evidence to warrant continued work. The authors could benefit from the help of a dramaturg to shape, refine, and narrow the scope of their vision to its most basic, powerful elements, and a director with the ability to deliver the well-cast, multi-layered production required. The central issues raised are fascinating, and deserve the chance to be fully explored.

(Also featuring Robert Aguirre, Sam Greene, Joey Guido, Stephanie L. Shapiro, Mark Stone, Leni Tabb, and Richard Vasquez.)
Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 0
Acting: 0
Set: 1
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 0

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Copyright 1999 Doug DeVita