A play based on fact is a reflection of the time in which it is written as well as the time in which it is set. If revived, a further layer of dust accumulates. Martin Sherman’s “Bent” — a holocaust drama, written at the end of the sexually charged 1970s, and seen again now through the additional filter of the marriage equality ruling and Caitlin Jenner, for instance — is just such an example.
Act I opens in 1934. Max (Patrick Heusinger) has a monumental hangover. Rudy (Andy Mientus), boy dancer in a café, is fussing over self-absorbed, silk-robed Max who is mightily invested in not remembering anything at all that happened the night before. Their life is clearly that of the Weimar Republic, pre-war, gay cabaret scene. There were over 100 gay bars in Berlin. Sexuality is front and center, just as it was in the pre-AIDs 1970’s when Sherman wrote “Bent.” It was the sexual revolution, baby, and true for heterosexuals as well as homosexuals. Love was not the point of relationships, though the character of Rudy illustrates that gay (pun intended) abandon was not felt equally by all. Wolf (Tom Berklund), Max’s forgotten toy from the night before and source of the bruises of which Max claims ignorance, wanders naked through the room on his way to the bathroom. Clearly this is not an unfamiliar scenario for Max and Rudy. Gay marriage would have been as far from their minds as it must have been for Martin Sherman when he wrote “Bent,” but Rudy is much more emotionally committed to the relationship than is pretty boy Max. The primary focus of Act I is establishing the glittering wild life of parts of the gay community in pre-Hitler Germany, and the opening salvos against it beginning in the summer of that year. For the aware, it is not unfamiliar territory, but do not leave now.
Act II is where the power of “Bent” is concentrated. Max has ended up in Dachau wearing prison stripes emblazoned with a yellow star, not a pink triangle (the emblem for homosexuals under the Nazis). Homosexuals were ranked even lower than Jews in the — dare I call it hierarchy? — of Nazi loathing. Max has made a “deal” entitling him to the gold star. He has used his status to secure Horst as his partner in an exercise whose only purpose is to drive the two men crazy. Horst has given Max the clues as to how to survive and the ever self-centered Max has embraced them. The men are to move a pile of rocks from one side of a yard to the other. When that is accomplished they are then to move them back again . . . endlessly. There are occasional three-minute breaks during which they must stand absolutely still. They are never to stop their futile task. Inevitably the men develop an intimate relationship though they never touch.
The content of “Bent” is so important, I hesitate to voice any disappointment. Sherman wrote it well, and Moisés Kaufman delivers a play that is both entertaining and tragic. There is absolute truth in the selfishness it took to survive the Nazi machine. The size of the Holocaust tragedy for European Jews was so huge it has swamped the costs to others like gays and gypsies.
Under Kaufman’s direction the humor sprinkled through the script stands out. Strangely the snarky jabs do not seem out of place. But humor has not necessarily been so prominent in previous productions. At least 15 years ago I watched a scratchy VCR tape of “Bent.” I do not recall if it was of the Broadway or the Yale Rep production. Kaufman is an accomplished director and the Taper production is clean and runs the gamut of emotions. Although somehow it does not have quite the impact of the previous “Bent” as it sits in my mind; the dust in my memory should not deter you from seeing it. It is a well-told tale about an important piece of history. Only knowing the underlying facts are true make the whole thing believable.