Stripped to its essentials, most all of which are concentrated in the second half, last night's "Bent" at the New Apollo is a straightaway one-act shocker. It might even profitably lend itself to the pulse of a score written along the forceful lines laid down by the Italian verismo composers.
Two reasonably young men (this is the second half) are taking rocks from one pile to build another 20 or 30 feet away. When that's completed, they must reverse the process, and so on - back and forth, back and forth, 12 hours a day. They are prisoners at Dachau in 1935, the year before the Berlin Olympics. Horst wears a pink triangle on his uniform, indicating that he is a homosexual, or "bent" person. Max wears a yellow star, signifying that he is a Jew and entitled to slightly better treatment than the other. Max is a homosexual, too, but he means to survive and has feigned Jewishness rather than wear the triangle.
A wily fellow who has "scrounged" for a living in Berlin, buying and selling cocaine among other dodges before he and his helpless lover, a dancer named Rudy, were caught in a forest outside Cologne, he has bribed one of the Dachau guards to have Horst, to whom he has taken a fancy, assigned to the rock pile. Though they are under constant watch, they are out of earshot of the guards, so that they are able to converse as they crisscross. And during the three-minute breaks, during which they must stand apart and at attention, they learn to "make love" with words sufficiently passionate and arousing to produce climaxes.
As winter comes, Rudy develops a racking cough, and Max, by seducing a guard, secures medicine for his partner, whom he has come to love without realizing it. "Bent," a shocker, has a punch ending.
If I appear to speak glibly of the monstrous treatment accorded Jews and "queers," as the latter refer to themselves here, under the Third Reich, it's because what the playwright, Martin Sherman, has written is a melodrama. One with a special twist, but still a melodrama, a form that can stir excitement but not necessarily feeling, except in those rare works that transcend the category. "Bent" is arresting, but unmoving.
In the first half, Sherman takes us, in a series of swift and neatly-written scenes, from a Berlin flat where the night before a drunken Max had carelessly arranged a threesome involving a wanted former SS man, to a homosexual saloon where Max and Rudy seek sanctuary and instead get money from a straight family man whose drag act has become verboten, to that forest retreat, and finally to a train bound for Dachau.
On the train, Max repeatedly denies that Rudy is his "friend," and is forced to administer the final blows to his already bloodied and dying lover by way of proof, after which he is made to commit another loathsome act offstage.
Strong stuff, but we aren't deeply involved, because "Bent" is more Grand Guignol than serious drama.
Richard Gere is extremely effective as the crafty Max who is finally touched by true love. David Dukes is superb as the sardonic, appealing Horst whose taunts finally break through Max's cynicism. Playing an old "queer," Uncle Freddie, a relative who in a first-act park scene offers Max passage to Amsterdam and a convenient marriage, an offer the playwright unconvincingly has Max turn down, George Hall has one good scene. Michael Gross is entertaining as the bony, practical-minded drag queen, and David Marshall Grant plays the effeminate dancer capably.
Director Robert Allan Ackerman has paced the play well, but for reasons best known to him, he hasn't bothered much to show the increasing wear and tear on Max and Horst (except for the latter's illness) during their months of pointless labor, first in summer heat and then in winter cold.
Santo Loquasto's settings are appropriately grim or tacky, as the occasion demands, and both Robert Wojewodski's costumes and Arden Fingerhut's lighting are well designed. There are also bits of interesting incidental music by Stanley Silverman in the first act.
"Bent" has taken a singular aspect of the Third Reich's hideous history and produced something more resembling a thriller than a study of man's inhumanity to man. Taken on those terms, it's shocking enough, but I found it largely a waste of time, and, more important, of its dread subject.
When we think of the German World War II extermination camps, such as Dachau, we think primarily of Hitler's pogroms against the Jews. Yet in fact there were four separate categories at the camps - Jews, obviously the most numerous, political prisoners, criminals and homosexuals.
Of course legally speaking homosexuals were criminals, but such was the official Hitler hatred for sexual deviance they were made into a separate group. Just as the Jews were forced to wear a yellow Star of David in the camps, so homosexuals wore a pink triangle. It is said between a quarter and a half million homosexuals perished at this time.
This is the background to Bent, the play by Martin Sherman, which opened last night at the New Apollo Theater. There will be many people who will doubtless claim the homosexual element in the play is incidental, and the reality of the theme is simply that it is about survival and a man discovering in himself the ability to love and make sacrifices. Possibly - but the homosexual orientation of the play is very evidently stressed.
When we first meet Max, the hero, he is nursing a hangover as monumental as the pyramids. His friend Rudy tries to comfort him with kisses and coffee, but to no avail. Max can remember nothing whatsoever about the night before. Suddenly Wolf, stark naked but cheerful, comes out of the bedroom and pads across to the bathroom.
Max's activities of the night before are gradually revealed. It is all very funny - until we realize that this is Berlin and the time is July 1, 1934. Max had not been the only one putting on a show the night before. It was Hitler's night of the long knives, and the homosexual Storm Trooper chief, Ernst Roehm had been murdered just outside of Munich.
Wolf, Max's unfortunate pick-up, was the boy friend of one of Roehm's lieutenants. There is a knock on the door, and almost within seconds, Wolf is dead and Max and Rudy are on the run, dressed in nothing but bathrobes, dashing through the streets of Berlin.
Eventually they are sent to Dachau. Rudy is killed on the train, with Max, determined to survive, himself striking the final coup de grace. Later, in recompense for sexually assaulting a dead 13-year-old girl, Max is awarded the Star of David, for as Jews, he and the author believe, are more favorably treated in the camps than were gays.
At Dachau Max has an affair with a fellow inmate, Horst. They make love while standing to attention, feet away from one another, achieving orgasm merely by the power of suggestion and graphic descriptions.
The first part of the play has a certain atmosphere and, in its loosely written way is interesting. The second part is repetitious, boring and worst of all melodramatic.
The play, although written by an American, was first staged in London. Such importations are usually brought to Broadway with their original productions intact even if the cast has been changed.
Here the staging is quite different, and with its crisp direction by Robert Allan Ackerman and, settings by Santo Loquasto and costumes by Robert Wojewodski, the play looked and moved with rather more authority. The performances were another matter. In London Max is played by Ian McKellen, a vastly more experienced and skilled actor than Richard Gere, who takes the role on Broadway.
Nevertheless Gere is enormously gifted, and although he overdoes his initial hangover, many of the later scenes, with David Dukes, admirably stolid as Horst, reveal an impressively raw passion. David Marshall Grant as Max's earlier room-mate, rather sweet and mousy, is also excellent, as is the leering brutality of the two S.S. officers, Bryan E. Clark and Ron Randell.
The slaughter of homosexuals is something few of us associate with the holocaust, and Bent does a service to draw this to the worlds attention. It remains more a decent histrionic vehicle for three fine actors than a viable play, if only because its structure is very bad, and its dramatic tone too strident and clamorous. Less would have been more, but then it usually is.
Whether or not author Martin Sherman can carry us all the way to the blistering climax of "Bent," he's got a powerful sense of theater going for two-thirds of his bizarre, bloody journey. Along the way he may be willing to use the tricky surprises of suspense melodrama to make sure we're startled to attention, but he never uses them cheaply.
In a homosexual pad - the language and atmosphere seem entirely contemporary - two friends and lovers are recovering from a night's bout with liquor, cocaine and sado-masochistic sex. The more flamboyant of the pair, played by Richard Gere with a disarming self-mockery, is badly hung over, playfully childlike, swiftly impatient with questions about love. "Queers aren't meant to love," is his constant, arrogant credo, and companion David Marshall Grant, timid behind his spectacles, is going to get short shrift this morning.
The morning is going to get rougher than anyone knows. The roommates no sooner discover that they have an overnight guest on the premises, the whips-and-chains chap of the party, than the door to the flat bursts open to admit two storm troopers, armed, ugly, efficient. Their guest's throat is cut with brutal finesse. At the same time a title board drops from the heavens: "Berlin, 1934," it says.
We're caught up in the sudden bloodbath that overtook German homosexuals, all the way from Hitler's charmed inner circle to the muscular blond boys on the fringes. From now on being homosexual would be held one degree lower than being Jewish. Mr. Gere and Mr. Grant are instantly, and rather miraculously, on the run.
Their flight takes them into some garish, some ghostly waystops. Begging funds from a cabaret entertainer, who's just finished a number in drag perched high on a bright red swing, they learn certain things beneath the leering masks and disembodied wigs of his dressing room. He's straight, with a wife and child; he's tipped off the Nazis to their address and been paid well for it; he will give them the money he got ("I've made a lot off your kind, take it all!"). There is no real kindness beneath the rouge and powder of the sequence as Michael Gross so effectively manages it; there is only anger and contempt.
The blazing reds and yellows with which designer Santo Loquasto has made a hothouse of the passage are directly followed by the cool grays and muted blues of a vast public park equipped with a lone bench. Mr. Gere is meeting his uncle (George Hall), who is himself homosexual but exceedingly discreet about it.
All that the family asks of Mr. Gere is that he eventually return home, enter a formal marriage and continue his practices - if he must - in private. Agreeing, Mr. Gere demands immediate passage for his friend and himself to Amsterdam. In passing, he enunciates, almost jovially, the second tenet of his creed: "I mean to stay alive." As the scene closes, Mr. Hall is flirting, cautiously, with a policeman. The meeting has had an odd, quiet, unexpected charm.
The mood is abruptly altered. The two refugees are caught and clapped into a filthy boxcar filled with triple-tier bunks, headed for Dachau. En route, Mr. Grant is taken to another compartment and battered within an inch of his life; the Nazis are determined to separate lovers. While he is gone, a gaunt figure in a lower bunk, played with a razor's-edge urgency by David Dukes, warns Mr. Gere that he will never survive the trip if he makes any effort to help his friend; he must, in fact, deny that friendship exists.
Mr. Grant is returned, beaten almost beyond recognition, and Mr. Gere does deny him, at least thrice. But that is by no means the end of it. Mr. Gere is now forced into a brilliantly realized bout of violence that is original, complex, sickening, and utterly plausible all at once. Ordered to strike his disclaimed companion, and doing so reluctantly at first, he is so overcome by shame and self-hatred, by disgust at what he is doing to preserve himself, that he slips over into uncontrollable rage: rage that he can only take out on the friend he is helping to kill.
It may sound odd to speak of the actor's work here as subtle; but the state of mind that dictates his increasing ferocity is intricate, intelligible, as inevitable as it is appalling. Mr. Gere is a remarkable performer.
I'm not going to describe an equally disturbing event that follows; the open sound of dismay that washed across the auditorium on the night I saw "Bent" was one I have never quite heard before - belief, disbelief, shock and half-understanding all mixed together. Suffice it to say that by proving his potency Mr. Gere is able to avoid wearing the pink triangle on his clothing that would classify him "queer." In an awful irony, he wins a better, safer badge: the yellow star of David.
Strong material; strong performing; dramatic blows do not often strike with this force. The evening's second half however, undergoes a market change of styling. It is just as well played, mind you; and it contains at least one extraordinary feat of performing as two men, standing yards apart, succeed in an act of lovemaking. But, visually and then dramatically, we seem to have entered a different universe, a different kind of play.
The remainder of Mr. Sherman's provocative work confines prisoners Gere and Dukes to a Dachau courtyard that blazes with white light through its barbed-wire fence. The men have a single task: to move a pile of stones, piece by piece, from one side of the area to the other, repeating the process into Sisyphean infinity. ("They're doing it to drive us crazy!" laughs Mr. Gere in a voice verging on song.) As they pass each other, mostly without touching, Mr. Dukes sporadically attempts to persuade Mr. Gere that homosexuals can indeed love.
But the substitution of one companion for another has already seemed to halve the play. Now, as the partners heave their stones back and forth through five or six changes of season, the sense of a split becomes stronger. We've moved from a first act almost overcrowded with vigorous events to a second shrouded in the stillness, the senseless repetition, even the fragmented rhythms of a Samuel Beckett. As we watch what is very nearly the same scene played again and again, we grow nearly as restive as the two victims, coughing into the dust raised by their sorry rockpiles.
There is a character problem, too. We have first met Mr. Gere as openly, candidly, even ostentatiously "queer." Somewhere during the nightmare he has dropped the identification; he will not acknowledge it. Though we can puzzle out answers to the riddle for ourselves, we're still not quite certain when and why the change took place. Once again, we're coping with a second act that doesn't seem a direct descendant of the first, and our interest waivers somewhat. The difficulties are real.
Grant them. I should think that any serious theatergoer, on the lookout for energy and originality in writing, staging (by Robert Allan Ackerman) and performing would find it necessary to see "Bent." There are a good many futures on view at the New Apollo.