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The Gardens of Frau Hess
by Les Gutman
This is the New York premiere of a new play by a new playwright, Milton Frederick Marcus, an advertising executive. He won't survive long as a playwright telling stories like this one.
In 1941, many will recall, Rudolph Hess made a mysterious flight to England that resulted not only in his excommunication from the highest ranks of the Third Reich, but his lifelong imprisonment. His wife, Ilse (Lisa Bostnar), a Teutonic princess, continued to live at the family estate in Germany. Long after the war, a shred of evidence was uncovered suggesting that, when Ilse's gardener was called to military service, she asked Himmler to find her a suitable replacement. He sent her a list of candidates culled from concentration camps. They were sent one at a time until she found one to her liking. No other details are known.
The dramatic potential in this is not hard to imagine. But from this launching pad, Marcus has concocted a cliché-ridden routinely-implausible, ill-conceived story. Rhoda R. Herrick, a first-time director, does reasonably well in the physical staging of the hand she has been dealt, although she makes a number of questionable choices. Chief among these is having Ms. Bostnar portray Ilse more as a film star of the 30's or 40's than as the German uber-frau she should be, thereby compounding the damage caused by the equally tone deaf (contemporary American, vulgar) vernacular in which Marcus has her speak.
Ilse engages the third candidate, Isaac Baum (Joel Lefferts), formerly a horticulture professor at Leipsig, now an inmate at the Malthausen death camp. Arriving dirty, disheveled and cowering, unaware of why he has been sent, Isaac is revitalized when he learns of the intended vocation for which he is being considered. Lefferts, for whom one can only have sympathy for what he is called upon to do in this play, nonetheless performs exceptionally well.
What ensues is a would-be chess match in which the two bait-and-switch emotions with one another, unveiling inane surprises that lead nowhere. Both have unrevealed dossiers on the other, and their own "secrets" that are confessed once their inhibitions are diminished with fine French wine (the patrician Ilse is not only a jealous anti-Semite but a Francophile) and the sexual energy between them, not unpredictably, escalates: an incestuous childhood rape of Ilse (when Uncle Otto opened his trousers and "stuck his weiner schnitzel in my bloomers"), the clever reïnvention of Isaac as a Catholic with a good German name (later uncovered by the Gestapo). Isaac wants to find out what happened to his daughter; Ilse knows but doesn't tell.
Along the way we have to listen to a debate about psychoanalysis (the work of that "depraved Jew in Vienna" pursued by "degenerates, socialists and queers"), another about her appreciation of Degenerate Art and the morality of its theft through the Swiss and another still about the merits and demerits of Wagner (by whom -- big shock -- Ilse is mesmerized and Isaac is appalled). Ilse rants incessantly about her disdain for the untermenchen who "fucked us with their phony morality"; she's also obsessed with the homosexuality of Goebbels and Hitler and, of all things, a Jewess's undergarments. Isaac's counterpoint comes in a mix of incredulity and self-preserving patronization -- much played for recognitional laughs.
Floating somewhere behind all of this is an inept if hyper-obvious metaphor about the garden which must be re-planted into "sociological correctness" with "native stock", despite Isaac's complaints about rotten roots and too much ash in the new soil. When Isaac finally repairs to his room for the play's final scene, donning his striped concentration camp garb as if it were a Tallis and reciting the Kaddish for his dead daughter -- yes, of course, he eventually drags this bit of withheld information out of Ilse -- it's a good thing he is behind a scrim. I doubt I am the only one who might have been inclined to throw something.