"The most singular, eccentric individual the Cold War ever birthed" has made a triumphant transfer to Broadway.
That's how Charlotte von Mahlsdorf is described in the opening moments of "I Am My Own Wife," Doug Wright's exotic, almost heroic tale of a real-life German transvestite, born Lothar Berfelde, who survived not only the Nazis but the Communists, without relinquishing her unusual sexual identity.
Wright's artful scrapbook of a play, which opened Wednesday at the Lyceum Theatre, was a hit last summer for off-Broadway's Playwrights Horizons. In the larger Lyceum, it works just as well, thanks to Moises Kaufman's inspired direction and an elegant production design (sets by Derek McLane and lighting by David Lander) that puts the audience right in the middle of a spooky, ghost-filled room stacked with ancient gramophones, clocks and assorted bric-a-brac.
To describe "I Am My Own Wife" as a one-man show is a misnomer, although there is only one actor on stage - the astonishing Jefferson Mays. Besides Charlotte, Mays portrays a parade of characters, including Charlotte's sadistic father, a lesbian aunt, Nazi officers, East German police, American soldiers and even the playwright himself.
Yet it is as Charlotte that Mays makes an indelible impression. The actor, using a slight Teutonic accent, is dressed in black: a simple skirt and blouse, offset by a string of pearls. On his head is a black kerchief and he's wearing large black shoes.
Mays' demeanor is smilingly confident, almost impish as he works his way through a startling tale of endurance - one that doesn't always show Charlotte in the best of lights.
"I Am My Own Wife" uses transcripts from Wright's interviews with Charlotte as she recounts a tortured childhood, the brutal days of World War II and then life under the Communists, particularly after the Berlin Wall went up.
Later, Charlotte becomes a celebrity in Germany as the Wall tumbles down, but its collapse also unearths some unsettling news: The country's most famous transvestite may have been a spy for the East German police.
Wright doesn't stint on Charlotte's moral ambiguity. Did she rat on friends in order to survive? The answer is never made clear. But it makes this most peculiar soul all the more human.
"I Am My Own Wife" revels in a particular time and place, but it is more than a historical document. The play is a vivid portrait of a unique person whose ability to endure has been turned into a highly theatrical journey.
On PBS' "Antiques Roadshow," experts scrutinize odd, old objects from every angle to come up with an appraisal of their value.
Something comparable occurs in Doug Wright's one-person play "I Am My Own Wife."
The object in question is a real person - Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, an East German transvestite who endured an abusive childhood under the Nazis and a perilous adulthood under the Communists.
Jefferson Mays' portrayal of the title character is mesmerizing.
Mays also portrays many other people, but you always know when he's doing von Mahlsdorf because he assumes an air of great dignity and aloofness, which heightens the mystery around this character.
In many ways von Mahlsdorf is treated like an object of titillation and fascination, not exactly a human being.
It is extraordinary that a cross-dresser who ran a gay nightclub could have survived two brutal regimes. But Wright's approach has a tone that is analytical and even teasing rather than straightforwardly dramatic. One of the big issues, for example, is the exact nature of von Mahlsdorf's relationship with the Stasi, the dreaded East German secret police, but this cannot be verified.
Much time is also spent discussing Wright's journalistic relationship with von Mahlsdorf in the years before von Mahlsdorf died, and inquiry that seems to be a distraction.
One of the running concerns is von Mahlsdorfs collection of crank-up phonographs with glorious horns. An especially evocative moment comes at the end of the first act, when Derek McLane's set full of those machines is eerily lit by David Lander, making the stage look like a Joseph Cornell box.
"Wife" could be shorter and tighter, but Mays does an astonishing job of making a dubious character enormously poignant.
Perhaps the most valuable gift a person could have during the last century was a gift for survival. Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a German transvestite, virtually raised it into an art form.
Charlotte - a larger-than-life but real figure - is the subject of the remarkable, one-person, multifaceted "I Am My Own Wife," which opened at the Lyceum Theater last night, following a successful run at off-Broadway's Playwrights Horizons.
Written by Doug Wright, it's a complex, fascinatingly flawed play that holds one's interest even when its dramatic machinery turns cumbersome - partly because Wright is a main character in his own play.
Playing Wright - and the ambiguous role of Charlotte and 34 other roles - is the amazing Jefferson Mays.
But I get ahead of myself. It is 1990. The Berlin Wall has fallen, and Berlin is turning somersaults.
In what had been East Berlin, Charlotte (born Lothar Berfelde) runs a small, fantastic museum of 1980s memorabilia - furniture, clocks, phonographs.
When Mays enters as Charlotte - his impassive face a blank scribble-pad for nuanced emotion, a slight song-song German accent to his precise, high-pitched voice - he starts a lecture about cylinder phonographs and old bric-a-brac that could be a satire of TV's "Antique Road Show."
It's here that an American correspondent in Berlin discovers Charlotte and writes to his friend, the playwright Doug Wright, suggesting him as a subject for a play.
For Charlotte seems to have done the impossible: Born in 1930 and openly homosexual, he survived the ministrations of both Hitler's Gestapo and the East Germany secret police, the Stasi.
And now Charlotte runs this quaint museum, and has even been awarded a Medal of Honor by the new German state.
Wright, his attention piqued, gets a Guggenheim grant to go to Berlin and tape Charlotte's astonishing story.
That story - which includes both patricide and the running of a Weimar-style cabaret club during the height of the East German regime - unfolds with unflurried dignity.
Some playwrights would end the story there. But Charlotte's story has a strange twist, one that Wright uses to crank up the final reality of this bizarre, 20th-century saga.
In the end, we're left with a character less fascinating than we originally thought. We might even feel a little cheated.
Yet on the whole, however true or false some of the details, we accept that Charlotte von Mahlsdorf was an extraordinary creature who survived extraordinary times.
The play is helped by the clever and attractive setting by Derek McLane, adroit neutral costuming by Janice Pytel, atmospherically crepuscular lighting by David Lander and a staging by Moises Kaufman that manipulates the interplay of the text with light but firm control.
But most praise must go to Mays, who grabs the role of a lifetime with sweetly unobtrusive grace. He makes us believe that he really is a stage full of folk, and the gradations and colorations of his portrayals are to be seen, cherished and remembered.
Here is one of the performances of the season.
Of all the peculiar entries in the Broadway derby this fall, perhaps the most peculiar is Doug Wright's fascinating one-actor play starring Jefferson Mays, "I Am My Own Wife." A critical success in its limited run earlier this year Off Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, it has now moved to the Lyceum Theater, where it opened last night amid all kinds of doubts that such a work might find enough of a mainstream audience to sustain it.
That it arrives during the tourist-heavy Christmas season, with the ordinarily barren weeks of January and February to follow, seems more curious, if not plain unwise. It's true that another one-actor show, "Golda's Balcony," garnered mostly good reviews (though not from me) and has attracted reasonable business. But that show has a recognizable star in Tovah Feldshuh and a subject, Golda Meir, that is of intrinsic interest to much of the well-established Jewish segment of the theatergoing audience.
"I Am My Own Wife" has neither of those advantages. And you have to wonder, how many visitors from the heartland of America will be eager to pass up the bling-bling of a Broadway musical for this quiet, dramatic tale about an East German transvestite played by an unknown male actor speaking in heavily accented English and wearing a black dress and a string of pearls?
That being said, let me urge them to do so. For the producers of "I Am My Own Wife" have done theatergoers a service by giving the play a chance to be more widely seen. And it has, in fact, broader appeal than a mere description would have you believe. It is not an esoteric work, and it isn't especially kinky.
It does, however, tell a terrific story based on a real person, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (née Lothar Berfelde), a soft-spoken but tenaciously gender-bending biological male who died in 2002 at 74. Her lifelong obsession — Mahlsdorf preferred to be thought of as female — was the preservation of furniture, especially pieces from the 1890's, and other household relics like Victrolas and gramophones.
Her devotion to her astonishing collection — she turned her home into a museum — gave focus and motivation to a life whose grandest achievement was that it proceeded to its natural end. In fact, "I Am My Own Wife" is largely about Charlotte's enduring the cruel repressions of the Nazis and the Communists, and her harrowing tales of survival through the eras of the Gestapo and the Stasi, the East German secret police, are nothing short of breathtaking.
Ah, but are they credible? That becomes an issue in the play, which very subtly but in the end quite powerfully makes a case for the necessity of storytelling in our lives. Among the resonant assertions of "I Am My Own Wife" is that lives themselves are narratives, and that the perspective, sympathy and reliability of the narrator are crucial to our understanding of them. In other words, to endure the world, people may lie about themselves or to themselves, and the lies are as important as the truth.
The various perspectives on Charlotte's life are all enacted by Mr. Mays in a simply splendid, genuinely artful performance. The characters include a television talk show host, more than a few brutal authoritarians, several of Charlotte's family members and friends, as well as Mr. Wright, the playwright himself. The total number of characters is 35, each with a separate voice and many with differing accents. Mr. Mays is able to render quite remarkably an American newsman whose German is inflected with a Texas drawl, but no less remarkable is that he consistently switches roles not only with vivid persuasion but also with uncannily precise timing.
Quite aside from the technical aspects of his performance, Mr. Mays is thoroughly mesmerizing when he is inhabiting his main persona, who is, of course, Charlotte herself. He presents to us a character of steely pride and ferocious wariness, someone whose manner is so self-contained that it seems unassailable even in its most dubious claims. Whatever the truth of Charlotte's story, it is clear, from Mr. Mays's performance, that the story she tells about herself is the one she has convinced herself to believe.
Charlotte's carefully calibrated movements and her tick-tock speaking voice give off a metronomic quality, which works perfectly with the diamond-sharp direction of Moisés Kaufman. The set by Derek McLane, in which shelves and shelves of period artifacts seemingly emerge out of darkness — where did he find all those Victrolas? — is not only beautiful, but also completely suits the theater; Mr. McLane has adroitly made the step up in magnitude to a proscenium house on Broadway. And the lighting of David Lander is used pointedly but without fanfare to underscore the drama in the text. There are louder bells and whistles to be heard on Broadway, and more smoke and mirrors, but over all, there is no more exquisitely rendered package of stagecraft. Its modesty is a strength.
That Mr. Wright has made himself such a prominent character in his own play remains the one gnawingly imperfect aspect of "I Am My Own Wife." Indeed, Charlotte's story is framed by the story of how Mr. Wright came to write her story. And what we learn from the play is that well along in Mr. Wright's work on it, he discovered that Charlotte might have been embellishing more than a few significant details. As a result, rather than being an organic part of the play, the framing device announces itself as a solution to a playwrighting problem: What happens when a fundamental presumption of a play proves dubious? How do you tell a story without confidence in it? The device works thematically; it just feels self-indulgent, conspicuously so in a work that otherwise is anything but.
Even with this caveat, however, "I Am My Own Wife" is the most stirring new work to appear on Broadway this fall. With nothing to recommend it but a story that is both moving and intellectually absorbing, a staging that is both careful and lovely and a performance that is a true tour de force, we should all hope that theatergoers prove that it belongs there.
The eyes still have it. "I Am My Own Wife" may have transferred to a big Broadway theater, but the one-man show still holds our attention, thanks to the pair of wide, glittering eyes belonging to the actor Jefferson Mays. As the German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, Mays surveys his audience with a gaze that's somehow both shyly retiring and fiercely, irresistibly intense. From the instant he walks onstage - wearing a simple black frock and a string of pearls - his gaze has us under its spell.
Mays is reprising, with little visible transfer-strain, a role he already played to justly great acclaim earlier this spring, when the play had a successful run Off- Broadway at Playwrights Horizons. His performance as Charlotte, the most prominent of the many characters he portrays during the show, has an unwavering strength of focus that manages to broadcast intimacy even in the larger house of the Lyceum, where this smart, engrossing production opened last night.
It helps, too, that Moisés Kaufman ("Gross Indecency," "The Laramie Project") has directed the show with a documentarian's investigative eye for detail. "I Am My Own Wife" doesn't so much fill the space as it does telescope our interest, picking out and holding forth one intriguing fact after another.
Those facts add up to a rich portrait of Mahlsdorf, the real-life transvestite who managed to survive the regimes of both the Third Reich and the East German Communists. Much of the play's material comes from interviews that Mahlsdorf, the curator of her own museum of antiques, gave to playwright Doug Wright (whose character also appears in the play), and the stories she tells - about a teenage boy discovering an affinity for women's clothes, about evading death at the hands of the Nazis, about her desperate murder of her abusive father - are so tough, dignified and inspiring that they begin, eventually, to test credulity.
And that, it turns out, is part of the point. In the 1990s, an uncovered Stasi file revealed that Mahlsdorf may have been a willing informant for East Germany's repressive secret police, and it cast shadows of doubt over many of the events Mahlsdorf repeated as the story of her life. Wright has written his own ambivalence into the play, offering an array of information about Charlotte without offering answers. We're left, as he is, compelled, fascinated and torn between admiration and suspicion.
Doug the character is the script's least successful risk, the guy who unnecessarily articulates his subject matter's troubling questions. But Wright's impressively economical storytelling has a confident sense of timing that, at its best, endows the play with the feel of a developing mystery.
Kaufman has given the play an expert, impeccably paced production that never stumbles. The set, by Derek McLane, conjures both the privacy of a drawing room and the expansiveness of an antique warehouse, and it is lit with faultless precision by David Lander. Andre J. Pluess adds gratifyingly subtle sound enhancement, and costume designer Janice Pytel's outfit for Mays seems so instantly iconic that the single, temporary costume change is nearly shocking.
It should be said that Mays does great work in his several supporting roles, which he distinguishes with a versatile voice and a shape-shifting body. But it's Charlotte, with her gentle gestures and her enigmatic smile, who haunts us. Mays' performance is so finely honed and perfectly cadenced that, when we finally hear a recording of the real voice of Mahlsdorf, it's not jarring at all. The actor's voice may not have exactly the same timbre, and Mays certainly doesn't look much like Mahlsdorf as she's described. But none of that matters. He's gotten her essence simply, thrillingly right.
The list of characters printed in the script for Doug Wright's I Am My Own Wife (*** out of four) cites 35 roles, among them a nurse, a prison guard, an American soldier, the cultural minister of Germany, two neo-Nazis, reporters from various countries and the playwright himself
What isn't indicated on the page is that these parts are all meant to be juggled by one actor. Luckily for anyone planning to visit Broadway's Lyceum Theatre, where Wife opened Wednesday, the actor in this production is Jefferson Mays. It was largely on the strength of Mays' performance, I suspect, that Wife transferred to this venue after a twice-extended off-Broadway run last summer.
That's not to say that Wright's text is without merit. Wife is based on the real-life story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, nee Lothar Berfelde, a German transvestite who survived the Nazis and then the communists to operate a makeshift museum. When we meet Charlotte, in the early 1990s, she is 65 and surrounded by some of her beloved memorabilia: an old gramophone, a miniature clock, furniture and appliances that once belonged to families whose lives were uprooted during World War II and the Cold War.
In the play, Wright, a gay author, travels from New York to Berlin to interview Charlotte and is instantly enchanted by her colorful accounts of overcoming such obstacles as an oppressive father and a homophobic SS commander. But when the German press begins circulating reports that Charlotte was an informant for the Stasi before the Berlin Wall fell, Wright's idealized portrait is challenged. The moral and emotional dilemmas that arise take shape movingly, but not unpredictably.
Wife is made consistently vital, though, by Mays' blazing dexterity. He adopts a wide array of ages, accents, personalities and patterns of body language, at times seeming to shift character in mid-thought, or even giving voice and expression to inanimate objects.
Moisés Kaufman's disciplined direction ensures that Mays' virtuosity seldom borders on self-indulgence, even when the actor is called on to portray a cheesy talk-show host or the eccentric collector who becomes the young Charlotte's mentor. Ironically, it's only when Mays appears as Wright — depicted here as a sort of mincing, neurotic urbanite — that his animated manner can border on affectation.
Mays' Charlotte, in contrast, is tender and nuanced, and exudes a balance of shrewdness and vulnerability that fuels the mystery of her authenticity and motivation. When she is hounded by a pack of journalists, or confronted with evidence that she has taken liberties with the truth, our hearts may go out to this frail old woman. But we never fear that she will be humiliated — or defeated.
"I need to believe in her stories as much as she does," Wright says to a friend toward the end. Thanks to Mays' vibrancy, we can relate to his fascination.
Charlotte von Mahlsdorf may have survived the Nazis and the Commies, too, but can she weather the savage economics of a bruising Broadway season? That's the question facing this quietly spellbinding solo show, which has moved to the big time following a successful summer run at Playwrights Horizons.
The relatively intimate Lyceum is the ideal Broadway house for Doug Wright's meditation on the mysteries of a tumultuous life: The theater proudly wears the patina of age, a fact that von Mahlsdorf, who devoted her life to the salvation and caretaking of antique furniture, surely would appreciate. Whether a large audience will appreciate this smartly collated history of a peculiar life is harder to gauge. But the signs are promising: Moises Kaufman's exquisitely crafted production loses no impact in a decidedly larger theater, and none of the fall season's new plays have scored a hit, either with critics or audiences.
Perhaps the best news is that a new home has not tempted the evening's sole performer, Jefferson Mays, to pump up the volume in his beautifully contained performance. He still relies on small effects to enrich his interpretations of a good dozen characters. With just a slight but striking change in vocal emphasis or coloring, a new tilt to the head or set of the shoulders, Mays sets aside one character and slips easily into the next. It's an admirably unmannered perf -- a virtuoso piece of acting that rigorously eschews flashy effects.
The central role is von Mahlsdorf herself, an outwardly timid transvestite, well into her dotage when we meet her (the feminine pronoun seems most appropriate), who reveals a history of quiet but determined fortitude in the face of a brutal buffeting by the forces of 20th-century history. As a teenager he took placidly to cross-dressing, with the approval of a lesbian aunt. Charlotte's gleaming, benevolent, slightly vacant gaze and apologetic smile barely falter as she calmly recalls the night this youngster turned the tables on his violently abusive Nazi father and beat him to death with a rolling pin.
The boy earned an early release from a sentence for the killing when a Soviet bomb fell on the prison where he was incarcerated. But Charlotte's saviors soon became her persecutors. When Berlin was divided, Charlotte and her fellow homosexuals were marked for persecution by their Soviet overlords and forced to go underground. Literally, in Charlotte's case, as the basement of her house, a museum devoted to furniture and artifacts from a particular period in German history, was turned into a clandestine gay speakeasy.
That this man in pearls and skirts managed to survive, and thrive, under two of the most oppressive regimes of the 20th century is the mystery that intrigued Wright. "It seems to me you're an impossibility. You shouldn't even exist," says the playwright, whose interaction with von Mahlsdorf is the focus of the play's text. And perhaps she was too good to be true: As von Mahlsdorf's history became known when the Berlin Wall fell, her secret interaction with the hated East German secret police was revealed, and soon her whole life was being called into question.
The play gradually evolves from being a celebratory recounting of a fascinating life to a troubled exploration of the slippery nature of truth and the difficulty of keeping one's moral bearings in a world in which survival depended on compromise. The allure of Charlotte's story, as she tells it, is hard for Wright to let go of: "I need to believe that things like this are true," the playwright says.
Wright's intrusions into the play are, in fact, its weakest moments: Gushy at first, he later plays the professor, providing neat interpretations the audience might better be left to discover for itself. But these are generally unobtrusive, thanks to Mays' understated delivery and Kaufman's uncommonly delicate and artful staging.
Derek McLane has re-created his haunting set design from the Off Broadway staging. The foreground is occupied by a stylized depiction of von Mahlsdorf's parlor. Looming against the back wall are carefully arranged rows of antique furniture, clocks and gramophones gleaming in the soft glow of David Lander's lighting.
The play's odd title is a quote from the central character, in response to his mother's anxious suggestion that a cross-dressing young man will not have an easy time finding a spouse. But the answer, in the context of the contradictory tales of von Mahlsdorf's life, carries a faint chill. As she freely admits, Charlotte was devoted above all to her museum and her furniture; men came a distant third in her esteem. It may have been just this eccentric sense of priorities that allowed Charlotte to pick her way placidly through the minefields of 20th-century history while so many others were swept away.