Two women, big political mess

Twilight in Berlin

By George Hammer
Directed by Michael Beckett
Taub Productions
Center Stage NY
48 West 21st Street, 4th floor (330-8810)
Equity showcase (closes March 10)
Review by David Mackler

Rachel (Eva Stenskar) is Jewish; Marlene (Patricia Dodd) is a loyal German, married with two children. They have been lovers for five years. It's Germany, 1935, and the Nuremberg laws have just downgraded Jews to sub-human status. Obviously, their relationship is going to be under quite a lot of strain. The setup has possibilities, but in his play Twilight in Berlin, George Hammer spends far too much time on exposition, and unfortunately flat performances by Stenskar and Dodd didn't fill in the character blanks.

What's missing is background. At the beginning there's a scene where Rachel and Marlene dance around Rachel's apartment, then embrace and kiss, but although the dialogue indicates they are passionate lovers, there's little indication of more than a friendly rapport between the two. All that talking about what is happening in Germany and what each is doing to deal with it is dry historical effluvium, not character exegesis. Hammer would have done better by his characters if we were shown how and where they met, what falling in love was like for them given their different backgrounds, and how and why they stayed together for five years (even though they only meet twice a week). Knowing that would make a difference -- give some humanness to these women, and show the connection between them.

The play does come alive when the women must deal with other characters. When a Gestapo sergeant (John Montague) comes to arrest Rachel, Hammer has written a scene where Marlene bribes him in a way that saves her reputation as a businesswoman, allows Rachel her dignity, and shows how the policeman thinks (Montague was quite good in an understated performance). In Act Two, set thirteen years later in Rachel's home in England where she lives with her husband and children (because of Marlene's bribe she was able to escape), the husband, Henry (Christopher Flavell), manages to put some feeling into expository dialogue that catches us up on the time gap. Even though we are also missing information on Henry and Rachel's meeting/courtship/marriage, Flavell made his character's stated feelings matter. And when Rachel must choose between her life in England and going off with Marlene (who has shown up on her doorstep in need of her help), the dice are clearly loaded.

The physical production (set design by Stanley Taub) had enough detail to evoke Rachel's apartment in Berlin and later her home in England. The lighting (Eric DeArmon) beautifully illuminated the two hallway entrances of the set to create moods that were not always brought to fruition in the script. Music (by Sergei Dreznin) similarly created moods all by itself, particularly in Act Two. Director Michael Beckett was really up against it with this one, but perhaps something could have indicated the passing of 13 years, other than a few streaks of gray in Marlene's hair.

Although there is no indication when the play was written, basic parts of the story bear a resemblance to a 1999 German film, Aimee & Jaguar, which was based on a novel that was based on a true story. And an Act Two revelation about Marlene's business dealings attempts to paint her with Schindler's List colors. But a play without meaningful main characters still operates at a disadvantage.

Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 1
Acting: 1
Set: 1
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 2

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Copyright 2002 David Mackler