Martin Sherman’s ground-breaking play Bent was first produced in London in 1979 with Ian McKellen in the lead role which was played by Richard Gere on Broaday later the same year. The first Los Angeles production was presented by Catalina at the Coast Playhouse in 1987 with David Marshall Grant in the leading role (and Viggo Mortensen as a sinister Nazi). A film was finally released in 1997 with Clive Owen in the lead role and McKellen and Mick Jagger in smaller roles. Sherman’s play brought to light the little known story of the Nazi treatment of homosexuals. It was generally known that over six million people were killed in the Nazi death camps. Over 60,000 homosexuals were arrested and sent to concentration camps during the Nazi reign where they were forced to wear a pink triangle on their clothes to identify them. They received even worse treatment than the yellow star wearing Jewish prisoners. After Sherman’s play, the Pink Triangle emerged as a symbol of the Gay Rights Movement in the 1980s. The Mark Taper Forum has currently mounted a solid revival of the play. If you have never seen it, you should not miss it.
The action is set in Germany from 1934-36, starting on the Night of the Long Knives, a historical date when Adolph Hitler moved to consolidate his power by eliminating a main rival, Ernst Rohm, leader of the Brown Shirts. Rohm and his followers were predominately homosexual. Unfortunately for Max (Patrick Heusinger), Wolf (Tom Berklund), the well-endowed trick he drunkenly brought home is a target for the Gestapo. The apartment Max shares with his dancer/lover Rudy (Andy Mientus) is soon filled with Nazis and the two of them are forced to flee with just the clothes on their backs. They take refuge at the club where Rudy works only to find out the cross-dressing owner/star Greta (Jake Shears) is the one who informed the Nazis as to Wolf’s whereabouts.
For the next two years Max and Rudy are forced to travel from one end of Germany to the other, while Max tries to work one of his deals to get them the proper papers to leave the country. His gay but closeted Uncle Freddie (Ray Baker) can get Max’s wealthy family to help Max but not Rudy. Finally they are arrested and find themselves on a train bound for a concentration camp. On board the train, they meet Horst (Charlie Hofheimer), another gay prisoner who tells them the fate that awaits them. Only Max makes it to the camp. There he works a deal with the commandant to wear a yellow star rather than the even lower status pink triangle. He also eventually gets Horst a transfer to his “lighter” work detail, which consists of moving rocks from one edge of the yard to the other and then back again. For 12 hours a day. Horst finally is able to break through Max’s shell and the two make a profound connection before the final tragic denouement.
The acting company is strong and meshes well. Beowulf Boritt’s scenic design, Justin Townsend’s lighting and Cricket S. Myers’ sound design are all top notch and the real highlights of the production. Moises Kaufman’s direction seems too reverential, the pacing too slow. The production is cold and detached, rarely very emotional. It’s visually stunning but the passion is absent.
Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. in Los Angeles. Ends August 23. www.centertheatregroup.org or 213-628-2772.