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A CurtainUp Review
Mother Night

We are what we pretend to be, so we must careful about what we pretend to be. — Howard W. Campbell, Jr.
Mother Night
Gabriel Grilli and Trish Lindstrom. (Photo by Carol Rosegg).
Mother Night, an early work by Kurt Vonnegut, is less entertaining than it is a challenge. However, it is impossible not to relate the perplexing story of Howard W. Campbell Jr. to the moral divisiveness in our country today, an atmosphere similar to the 1930's, '40's, and '60's. It's a sardonic black tragi-comedy of not only one man but a society and humanity itself. So it goes, as we have seen before, the public can easily be drawn into a world of their darkest angels.

The New York premiere of Mother Night, at the 59E59 Theaters is a Custom Made Theatre Company production, adapted and directed by Brian Katz. As the narrator, Gabriel Grilli sits at a typewriter. He writes, "My name is Howard W. Campbell, Jr. I am an American by birth, a Nazi by association, and a nationless person by inclination. It is 1961. I am behind bars, awaiting a trial for my war crimes by the State of Israel."

Campbell's incarceration in Jerusalem serves as a frame for the story of treason spreading Nazi propaganda. His story is as true as he thinks at any moment in time.

Born in Schenectady, New York, Campbell's father was transferred to Germany in 1923 and young Howard easily melted into German society, became a playwright and broadcaster and eventually joined the Nazi party. He had a popular radio program devoted to broadcasting pernicious anti-Semitic and anti-American propaganda.

There is, however, a story beneath the propaganda. Before the war, Howard Campbell had been recruited by the OSS to deliver highly vital intelligence about Germany to the Allies. Claims Campbell, the intelligence was transmitted on his broadcasts through codes of pauses and coughs, and he never knew what the messages actually said

As the main character, Grilli carries the largely narrative play, revealing Campbell's charm and persuasiveness. His likability and sympathy are easy to see when he interacts with other characters, mostly Nazi bigwigs, but especially his profound love for his wife, Helga. Before dying, he states, "Make love when you can. It is good for you." When left alone after the war, his wife presumed dead, Campbell's loneliness is palpable and the decisions he had made torture him. Yet, there is a cold ambivalence shown as he easily jokes about the concentration camps. Questionable is how quickly he accepted Helga's reappearance years after the war.

In prison, Campbell meets and listens to Nazi criminals like Adolf Eichmann (Matthew Van Oss) express their unemotional feelings of the war. Israeli prison guards who survived the Holocaust,are all played by actors taking on multiple characters.

Dave Sikula plays curmudgeon George Kraft, a longtime undercover Russian spy is also Campbell's neighbor in New York. Playing Helga (and her younger sister, Risa), Trish Lindstrom is glamorous and seductive, dressed by Zoe Allen in flouncy dresses. Dared Wright is on target as an obsessed American soldier and Eric Jones is one fanatical right-wing New Yorker who contacts Campbell. In a gender switch from the novel, Andrea Gallo is compelling as Wirtanen, his "Blue Fairy Godmother," the American intelligence contact who first brought him into the OSS and continues to intervene in his life.

Daniel Bilodeau designed a jail cell with bars of wooden planks framing a bare set that serves as Campbell's cell, his home in Germany and his threadbare Greenwich Village apartment. With lighting by Adam Gearhart and sound and original musical music by Julian Evans, the atmosphere is haunting, changing effectively with the sudden twists.

Brian Katz' adaptation and direction of the play is provocative portrait of a man who can be good or evil or both. He is often self-contradictory as he tells his own story at a self-serving pace. Did preaching virulence and hatred make him evil even for a good cause? Was he a double agent, even a hero? A schizophrenic? Light and dark, there are various blurred truths and lies, incidents of horrors related with cold clarity in Vonnegut's wry omniscient style.

In a prologue to his book Vonnegut noted that this is the only one of his books where he knows what the moral is. "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." This moral seems to have defined and haunted Campbell through his life, and probably Vonnegut as well.

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Mother Night Book: Kurt Vonnegut
Adapted and directed by Brian Katz
Cast: Andrea Gallo, Gabriel Grilli, Trish Lindstrom, Matthew Van Oss, Eric Rice, Dave Sikula, Dared Wright
Set Design: Daniel Bilodeau
Costume Design: Zoƫ Allen
Lighting Design: Adam Gearhart
Original Music and Sound Design: Julian Evans
Properties Design: Stephanie Dittbern
Production Stage Manager: Aliyah Nissine
Produced: The Custom Made Theatre Company with Executive Producers William & Ruth Isenberg and Leah Abrams, and Producer Jay Yamada at 59E59 Theaters
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes. One intermission
Theatre: 59E59 Theaters
Theater Address: 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues)
Tickets: $25-$35 ($24.50 for 59E59 members). Call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit
Tues.-Fri. at 7:15 PM; Sat. at 2:15 PM & 7:15 PM; Sunday at 2:15 PM. No matinee Sat. Oct. 6.
Previews: 10/05/18. Opens: 10/10/18. Closes: 11/03/18.
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors based on performance 10/07/18

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