Dying to see America

Helmut Sees America

By George Malko
Directed by John Stewart
Theatre 3 (592-3307)
311 W. 43rd St. (closed)
Review by Adrienne Onofri

September, 1993: In the course of one week in Florida, a British tourist is fatally attacked at a highway rest stop and a German visitor is killed when his rental car is sprayed with bullets en route from the airport. They are the eighth and ninth foreign tourists murdered in Florida that year.

September, 1996: Writer George Malko debuts Helmut Sees America, a play apparently inspired by this dark chapter in tourism history. The circumstances of the fictional Helmut Klammer's death resemble the real-life incidents, but the play is not a dramatization of the tragedy. Malko parlays the crime into a discourse on issues as diverse as race, grief, and public relations.

Malko's perspective on the tourist murders is an ingenious example of fact-based fiction writing. The early sight of Helmut's widow toting his coffin along on their American vacation set up the audience for a black comedy in the Monty Python vein. What they got, though, was a provocative drama peppered with powerful moments and incisive satire and galvanized by Pamela Nyberg's superb portrayal of Helmut's widow, Christina-Marie.

Helmut Sees America begins with Christina-Marie's arrival in a Wisconsin motel. Although Helmut was gunned down in a drive-by shooting outside the Miami irport, Christina-Marie is determined for them to take the entire cross-country trip they had planned. Mackenzie Carlson, a Florida bureaucrat, is following her to try and restore his state's good name, but she chooses to turn to the black bellhop, Shawaun (Maduka Steady), for support.

Malko's script is compelling despite its shifting focus. It is never clear where the story is headed, and most of the issues raised are not played out to a firm conclusion. Yet Malko is tremendously resourceful in mining the episode for repeated hits on the audience's psyche. Within the confines of this one-hour, three-character work, Malko was able to evoke emotions ranging from revulsion at Carlson's bigoted treatment of Shawaun, to sympathy for Christina-Marie's anguish, to curiosity about a possible seduction of Shawaun by the widow (or vice versa).

The most glaring flaw of the production was the disparate performances. Steady failed to develop a personality for Shawaun, whereas Nyberg beautifully effected every detail of her character. The actress conveyed Klammer's nervous apprehension in her hands as well as her voice, played drunk convincingly, and stopped the show with a heart-wrenching breakdown. Dan Daily was excellent as Carlson, and set designer Dawn Robyn Petrlik also did a fine job recreating a motel room and a lakeside cabin. (Costumes, Carol Brys; Lighting, Debra Dumas; Sound, David Van Tieghem)

Box Score:
Writing 1
Directing 1
Acting 2
Set 1
Costumes 1
Lighting/Sound 1
Copyright 1996 Adrienne Onofri

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