Surprisingly funny and deeply sad, Uptown’s ‘Bent’ movingly portrays the gay life in Nazi Germany
The first 20 minutes of "Bent" could easily be a scene — dialogue unchanged — from any gay-themed play set in contemporary Chelsea. Max (David Plunkett) is trying to quiet his chatterbox lover, Rudy (Andrew Phifer), after a night of hard partying. There’s even a naked hunk (Heath Billups) in Max’s bed, a trick he brought home because he was turned on by his leather uniform. Rudy gossips and complains about his boss at the drag club while Max comically tries to convince his boy-toy that he’s not a rich man, that the pounding on the front door is his landlord after this month’s rent.
Then the door opens, and three jack-booted Nazis storm in. Max and Rudy flee, and the trick is summarily executed. But this is not the East Village in 2008: It’s 1930s Berlin on the "Night of the Long Knives," when Hitler’s gay second-in-command, Ernst Rohm, and his stormtroopers were butchered in a purge. Homosexuality suddenly becomes a crime against the Fatherland, and people like Max and Rudy — "fluffs" they’re called — aren’t safe.
There are many moments in "Bent," enjoying a fine staging from Uptown Players, when you are tempted into hoping that things might end well, that Max’s plan to smuggle Rudy and himself into Holland will succeed. You allow yourself this fantasy even knowing by looking at the program that, in Act 2, they will end up in Dachau, the prototype for all Nazi concentration camps.
Ironic, then, that it’s when the audience’s false hope ends that the characters’ begins in earnest. Max, a weasely "playa" from a wealthy family who has always survived by cajoling and bargaining himself out of tight spots, thinks he can talk his way into comparative luxury in the camp. First he "proves" he’s straight by raping the corpse of a dead teenaged girl, thereby getting a yellow star on his uniform instead of the pink triangle worn by homosexuals, who are treated even worse than the Jews.
Max then bribes a guard so that another inmate, Horst (Kevin Moore) — who wears the pink triangle — can labor alongside him at the most pointless busywork imaginable: Methodically moving stones, Sisyphus-like, from one irrelevant pile to another.
Bruce Coleman’s direction and the performances are all highly stylized, but no less effective because of it. Coleman emphasized how the Nazis’ single-minded hatred accomplished nothing save silencing those who created art and dance and poetry. In the play, drag club owner Greta (Paul Taylor), more decadent than Sally Bowles, becomes a ghostly figure, blindly lip-synching to Marlene Dietrich torch songs — fiddling while Rome burns, until he, too, has become a prisoner and the music ceases.
Plunkett convincingly progresses from idle hedonisms to self-respect. And Phifer, injecting many of the unexpected comedic jolts into the play, is sweetly endearing. But the real revelation here is Moore, who’s never been more charismatic onstage.
Moore’s blend of confidence and hardness is jarring, made all the more remarkable in intimate moments. The play’s most celebrated scene — when Max and Horst engage in a kind of virtual sex, graphically describing their lovemaking to each other to the point of orgasm without ever touching — is voyeuristic, almost erotic, but also beautiful and sad. And in large part, it’s because of Moore. This is a not-to-be-missed performance.
In the waning months of the Bush idiocy… er, presidency, it’s difficult to see a show like this, to hear Max describe "Moslems" in the camp (near zombies with a death-wish), without thinking of Abu Ghraib and how leaders have always used fear to persecute the most vulnerable in society. That sobbing you hear at the end of "Bent" isn’t all for Max and Rudy and Horst; some of it is for us.
KD Studio Theatre, 2800 Stemmons Freeway. Through May 11. Thursdaysâ€“Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. $22â€“$25. Uptownplayers.org.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 25, 2008.