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A CurtainUp DC Review
by Rich See
Scena Theatre stirs up laughs and questions with its world premiere of Charles Marowitz' new play Silent Partners. This quickly paced and intriguingly staged piece is a character study of two men -- Bertolt Brecht and Eric Bentley -- and the unspoken aspects of power and awe which fueled their relationship.
Written and directed by Mr. Marowitz, the play looks at the meeting between the 25-year old Bentley and the 44-year old Brecht in 1942. Brecht had come to reside in California in 1941, after leaving Germany in 1933 following the Nazi's rise to power. As Hitler's influence spread across Europe, the writer and his family fled one country after another until they arrived in California. Following his emigration to the U.S., Brecht began to look for an English translator of his poems, books and plays, and settled upon Bentley. It's their resultant rocky friendship that Mr. Marowitz has examined and peeled the layers away from, ultimately revealing a complex web of emotions and mechanizations that were mutually beneficial for both men.
Based on Eric Bentley's Brecht Memoir, as well as on extensive personal interviews with the writer himself, Marowitz has created an entertaining story that is simultaneously funny, perplexing and disturbing. Tossing in small bits of insight into both men, the playwright/director fuels his piece with some wonderful humor. The opening scenes of Acts One and Two which discuss Mr. Bentley's homosexuality with a government official, who may or may not be the same man, are two gems. The dinner scene where Brecht and his lover Ruth Berlau are arguing over aspects of a play, while Brecht's wife Helene Weigel silently eats in a slowly building rage, is another comedic treasure within the production.
After revealing to us that Brecht's lovers may have written up to 90% of his most celebrated plays, that he flaunted his affairs in his wife's face, that he chose Bentley because the translator was young, malleable and unthreatening; playwright Marowitz ultimately leaves us asking: "Why did these people coalesce around Brecht?" He provides no answers because the individuals themselves don't seem to understand the spell they have fallen under; though Bentley humorously likens it to Dracula or Lucifer. It seems all are convinced of the writer's greatness, even if he isn't actually certain.
What emerges from the drama of the play is a small sequestered culture of celebrity focused on Brecht. The young Bentley eventually becomes, like the women in Brecht's life, someone who derives their identity through being a part of Brecht's entourage: enduring the writer's personal slights, his selfishness, accepting his ego and ultimately giving a part of themselves to his art. Meanwhile, Brecht is a man ready to use anyone who willingly offers themselves up to him and then just as ready to cast the individual aside, ultimately rationalizing his behavior and their contribution to his oeuvre.
As director, Mr. Marowitz knows his material and his subjects. He's highlighted the comedy, while allowing the drama to unfold and bubble under the surface. Richard Montgomery's set is a grey, barn-like space that seems to be a nameless spot in an inner dialogue that Eric Bentley is having with himself. With slight prop and furniture changes, the stage melds from enlistment office to dining room to restaurant to medical lab to Senate hearing to East German theatre.
Marianne Meadows' lighting provides some nice effects, especially during the Lucifer sequence, and David Crandall's sound design offers old songs and dramatic score to the production.
Barry Dennen as the cigar smoking, rumpled Brecht is matter-of-fact and laid back. With a twinkle of mischievousness he is at the same time obviously wielding his influence over the younger man to reach his own aims. Due to Mr. Dennen's ability, while you see the less flattering sides of Brecht, you still kind of like the guy.
Ian Armstrong's Eric Bentley is winsomely naïve and very British in manner and reserve. Constantly redirecting his dialogue to the audience to provide insight and commentary (much like his role as a theatre critic) his dry delivery adds to the humor, while he also rises to the occasions when Bentley is forced to reveal his emotional side.
As wife Helene, Charlotte Akin creates an angry, brooding woman who is at first overlooked, but who ultimately becomes essential to Brecht's artistic success. Her silent playing of the previously mentioned dinner sequence is a production highlight.
Caroline Strong's alcoholic Ruth Berlau -- one of two of Brecht's main mistresses -- is a hard-edged woman who is devoted to Brecht even after he refuses to give her credit or royalties for works she helped him compose. Ms. Strong brings a sadness to the role as Berlau moves from autocratic sidekick to mental patient.
As a writer, Charles Marowitz has taken an unflinching look at both his subjects. Neither escapes the playwright's analysis as he correlates similar aspects of their personalities and shortcomings. Silent Partners is a tug-of-war of wills as one man learns about himself through his friendship with another man whom he believes to have been quite special. But who instead, ultimately, turns out to have been neither hero, role model or villain, just simply a man named Bertolt Brecht.