By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
In the second hour of Bent, two men carry rocks, one at a time, from one pile to another. When all of them are stacked, the same stones are hoisted again, placed back in the space so carefully emptied moments before.
The repetitive action of men dressed in soiled striped pajamas, slowly toting big rocks back and forth across the stage does have a Beckett-like purity. It also serves as the perfect visual metaphor for this play. Bent is heavy lifting all the way around.
In Martin Sherman's drama, now onstage at Uptown Players, main characters Max and Horst are prisoners in Dachau. They work the rock pile under the gaze of SS guards who combine extreme physical punishment with exquisitely evil mind games. Max thinks he and Horst have "the best job in the camp," which says a lot about conditions there, but they clearly are suffering. Horst's pain is physical—he gets sicker as the play goes on. Max's wounds are psychological. Not only has he denied his homosexuality to pass as a Jew in the camp, he also has been forced by guards to prove himself by committing an unspeakable act on a young Jewish girl.
Speaking furtively as they work, Max and Horst, who is also gay but open about it, grow closer. Their shuffling around the rock pile becomes a sort of sad courtship dance. Knowing they could be shot for any reason at any moment, they try not to draw attention to their connection. Rarely do their eyes meet, even as they engage in the most intimate exchanges.
In 1979, when Bent was a Broadway smash starring Richard Gere as Max, the play was a shocker. Not much generally was known at that point about the Nazis' persecution of homosexuals, who were forced to wear pink triangles, the equivalent of yellow stars for Jews. Drawing research from many sources, including Bruno Bettelheim's The Informed Heart, Sherman made Max and Horst his symbols of Hitler's many gay victims. The pink triangle was adopted as a new emblem of gay pride because of this play.
What came after Bent was a surge of Holocaust-themed stories on stage, film and television. The play preceded Playing for Time, Sophie's Choice and Schindler's List, as well as cable's History Channel, aka the "Hitler Channel," all of which have helped us know a lot more about the Nazi camps and those who died in them.
Bent's witness to 20th-century gay history is indisputable, but 29 years on, as just one of many retellings of those terrible events of World War II, is it still a powerful piece of theater?
Sad to say, no. As a play about the will to stay alive against all odds, it resonates. But as a paean to the struggle of one gay man, Max, to embrace his identity at risk of certain death, it seems sketchy and unnecessarily abstract.
Because of what we've seen in similar narratives on stage and screen since 1979, what then was disturbing about the play now fails to land a real emotional gut-punch. Even the verbal sex scenes—Max and Horst standing stiffly and apart, bringing each other to climax without ever touching—are tame by current media (and cybersex) standards. We're inured to this stuff—graphic sex, torture, Nazis—and that's bitter commentary in itself.
At Uptown Players, director Bruce R. Coleman has made one improvement on Sherman's script by increasing the stage time of "Greta," a drag character who sets a menacing tone in the first act. After singing in her dank gay nightclub, Greta warns Max and his whiny lover Rudy to get out of Berlin. Hitler's highest-ranking homosexual, Sturmabteilung leader Ernst Röhm, has been murdered and the SS are rounding up gay men. "Now you're like Jews, unloved, baby, unloved," says Greta.
Later Greta helps the pair escape the Gestapo temporarily, and that should be the last time she's seen. But Coleman reprises Greta, played with a beautiful snarl by Paul Taylor, for scene transitions. In a variety of lavish costumes (by Suzi Cranford), including a frilly Bo Peep number, Greta lip-syncs to Marlene Dietrich and Lotte Lenya. Gradually, we see the deconstruction of Greta's glamour, until he/she too is dressed in the striped uniform and cloth cap of the prison camp.
That Greta's untold story becomes more intriguing than Sherman's central one shows how flimsy Bent is. The miscasting of the main roles in Coleman's production further undercuts whatever dramatic impact the play might still have. As Max, the coke-sniffing party boy given to inviting strangers home for "twelvesomes," David Plunkett is too reedy, too brittle to make a believable gigolo. The actor is just not sexy, and Max has to be in order to seduce us and Horst into forgiving his considerable sins. That's what made Gere, who built his career playing morally and sexually ambiguous characters, such a terrific Max. Clive Owen, ditto, played him in the 1997 film.
Opposite Plunkett, Kevin Moore makes a fine Horst. Moore, who's as handsome and flat-abbed as a calendar boy, has appeared at Uptown in some good comic leading roles—Valley of the Dolls, Valhalla—but Bent is his best work in a drama. If only he'd played Max.