|L-R: Gabriel Grilli and Andrea Gallo in MOTHER NIGHT. Photo by Carol Rosegg.|
In 1962, more than a half-century ago, Kurt Vonnegut wrote Mother Night, a meta-fictional novel brimming over with a plethora of audacious characters, both real and imaginary: Nazi propagandists, double agents, Communist spies, white supremacists, and on and on. A motion picture adaptation of the novel was released in1996, featuring Nick Nolte, Sheryl Lee, Alan Arkin, and John Goodman. But it was not until last year that the novel was adapted for the stage by Brian Katz, premiering to generally very positive reviews at Custom Made Theatre Company in San Francisco
The play has now arrived in New York, directed by Brian Katz, where it is enjoying its East Coast premiere at 59E59 Theaters in midtown Manhattan. And it is simply terrific.
Mother Night is the story of Howard W. Campbell, Jr. (Gabriel Grilli), an American-born writer raised in Germany since the age of 11, whose literary ability brought him to the attention of Joseph Goebbels and the Nazi propaganda machine - which he ended up serving all too well. To be sure, he had also been recruited as a double agent for the United States and he did pass along coded secret information to the Allies in his virulently anti-Semitic radio broadcasts heard throughout Germany. But it was still the case that those broadcasts inspired the German people, reinforcing their belief in Hitler’s and Goebbels’ racist propaganda. Or as Vonnegut wrote: “he served evil too well and good too secretly, the crime of our times.”
As the play begins, Campbell is in an Israeli jail, writing his memoirs and awaiting trial for his war crimes by the State of Israel. And as the play ends, he is preparing to leave the world and contemplating the morals he has learned along the way:
When you are dead, you are dead…
Make love when you can. It is good for you.
And, perhaps most important of all:
We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.
Between the play’s opening scene and its closing moments, we are treated to a variety of flashbacks to different events at different times and in different settings, in which six other very talented actors play a wide variety of different roles. Campbell is married to Helga (Trish Lindstrom), a famous German actress, but loses her in the war. He is approached by his “blue fairy godmother,” Frances Wirtanen (Andrea Gallo), an American secret agent who convinces him to spy for the US and pass along coded secret messages to the Allies in his radio broadcasts. After the war, he is captured by Lt. Bernard O’ Hare (Dared Wright) of the American Third Army but manages to avoid the hangman’s noose when Wirtanen succeeds in “disappearing” him and settling him anonymously in Greenwich Village.
It is there that he meets George Kraft (Dave Sikula), a reclusive artist who also turns out to be a Communist spy, and Lionel Jones (Eric Rice), a paranoid-schizophrenic dentist and the leader of a white supremacist organization. And along the way, we also are introduced to Helga’s younger sister, Resi, and Campbell’s mother (both of whom are also played by Trish Lindstrom); Helga and Resi’s Nazi father, Noth, (also played by Dared Wright); Joseph Goebbels (also played by Dave Sikula); and a young Dr Epstein and Adolf Eichmann (both played by Matthew Van Oss).
Ultimately, Campbell, betrayed by both Kraft and Resa and his spirit broken, determines to accept the consequences of his wartime actions, arranges to be captured by Israel’s Mossad and be taken to Israel, there to await a fair trial for the war crimes he committed – despite his receipt of another letter from Wirtanen offering to intercede on his behalf to set him free.
The play is extraordinary in its scope, a tribute to both Vonnegut and Katz, and to the performances it has elicited from its very talented cast. Assuredly, this is one well worth seeing.