Chief New York Theatre Critic
Outer Critics Circle / Drama Desk Member
“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” – Howard Campbell
Howard Campbell’s (an even tempered and soft-spoken Gabriel Grilli) non-linear journey from Nazi Germany’s radio propaganda machine in World War II to his self-execution in 1961 is the subject of The Custom Made Theatre Company’s “Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night,” currently running at 59E59 Theaters. Adapted from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel by the company’s Founding Artistic Director, the play begins with the forty-eight-year-old Campbell in an Israeli prison in Old Jerusalem awaiting trial for his collusion with the Nazis. Vonnegut’s forty-five short chapters are distilled successfully into Brian Katz’s seven “Tracks.”
The play ends in the same prison where Campbell learns of his impending release and his decision to be the sole judge of his future. Between these first and seventh Tracks, Campbell discloses how he arrived in Germany, how he became affiliated with both the Nazi Party and with Wirtanen (an intense and secretive Andrea Gallo) an American intelligence operative who convinces him to be an American spy. Campbell lives this double life as a Nazi propagandist and a spy who uses his pro-Third Reich broadcasts to filter important information to the Allies. He never quite comes to terms with his “pretending” and the results of his actions.
Campbell provides considerable exposition in his narrative, including his early history, how he met his wife Helga (a seductive and manipulative Trish Lindstrom), how he lived in Greenwich Village for fifteen years following the war, and how he ended up in an Israeli prison. The narrative includes a variety of characters significant in his journey, all played by the ensemble cast – from those who guarded him in prison to those who “hunted him down” in the United States.
Although Mr. Katz’s stage adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Mother Night” is faithful to the 1962 novel, it cannot remove the difficulties of the original text, including the novel’s lapses of believability. It would seem implausible that Campbell did not recognize that the “returned” Helga is her sister Resi. But the difficulty with this “Mother Night” is not the adequate adaptation, but the glaring inability of the cast to consistently deliver believable and authentic performances. Andrea Gallo delivers a solid portrayal of Wirtanen (and the other characters she portrays) and Trish Lindstrom’s Helga and Resi are also believable; however, the rest of the well-qualified cast oddly deliver performances that portray their characters as flat or as less than interesting caricatures. Without being behind the scenes, it is difficult not to assume that Mr. Katz’s direction is somewhat responsible for this predicament.
Daniel Bilodeau’s sparse set serves as prison, Greenwich Village apartment, other apartments, a rooftop, and other locations. The set is adequately lighted by Adam Gearhart and Zoë Allen provides period appropriate costumes.
“Mother Night’s” themes are as important in the present as they were when Vonnegut wrote the novel. It is remarkable how relevant the important issues of white supremacism, anti-Semitism, oligarchy, fascism, xenophobia, lack of personal integrity, and prevarication continue to erode the hallmarks of democracy. Frightening is perhaps a better adjective. The Custom Made Theatre Company is to be commended for bringing “Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night” to 59E59 Theaters. One wishes the performances and direction could have been more kind to the adaptation.
KURT VONNEGUT’S MOTHER NIGHT
The cast features Andrea Gallo, Gabriel Grilli, Trish Lindstrom, Matthew Van Oss, Eric Rice, Dave Sikula, and Dared Wright.
The design team includes Daniel Bilodeau (scenic design); Adam Gearhart (lighting design); Zoë Allen (costume design); Julian Evans (original music and sound design); and Stephanie Dittbern (properties design). The Production Stage Manager is Aliyah Nissim.
“Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night” runs at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues) for a limited engagement through Sunday, November 3 on the following performance schedule: Tuesday – Friday at 7:15 p.m.; Saturday at 2:15 p.m. and 7:15 p.m.; Sunday at 2:15 p.m. Single tickets are $25.00 - $35.00 ($24.50 for 59E59 Members). To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.59e59.org. Running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes with one ten-minute intermission.
Photo: Gabriel Grilli and Trish Lindstrom in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Mother Night at 59E59 Theaters. Credit: Carol Rosegg.