Erich Maria Remarque's "Full Circle," playing at the Matrix on Melrose Avenue, is set in the Berlin apartment of a young widow named Anna during the final days of the Third Reich. (The death of Hitler is announced during the course of the play.) It was originally called "The Last Station." The adaptation is by Peter Stone and, under the best of circumstances, making it work for a contemporary audience is a tall order.
For one thing, Remarque was principally a novelist ("All Quiet on the Western Front," "Three Comrades," "The Black Obelisk") and the events in "Full Circle" tend to supersede each other, as they would in a novel, rather than theatrically cohere.
Rohde, an escaped POW, bursts into Anna's room seeking refuge. (Her late husband was a hero to the underground.) She is not unsympathetic. Enter Gestapo Group Leader Schmidt, who interrogates them. He calls in another prisoner, Katz, to see if Katz will identify Rohde. Katz (heroically) refuses and jumps out a window to his death.
Berlin falls. Schmidt returns. He explains to Anna that he has taken Katz's identity. He also takes over the flat, and Anna.
The Russian military enters. More interrogation. Who's the impostor, Schmidt or Rohde? (Does anyone think the Russians really care? Under the circumstances they wouldn't have the time or the inclination to sort it out.) Without giving away the rest of the ending, the final moment echoes the first, where solitary Anna smokes in bed with a sympathetic ear to the sad songs of Marlene Dietrich playing on the house speakers.
Remarque's play begs credibility--in these various interrogations, it doesn't take a forensic analyst to spot who has spent the past seven months in a prison or concentration camp and who hasn't. "Full Circle" has neither the moral gravity of "Incident at Vichy" (though the choice between silence and betrayal does figure in at times) nor the dialectical tension of Sartre's "Dirty Hands." Its arguments, wherever posed, are thin; its level of melodrama fairly high (who has the gun on whom this time?), and more than a few of its lines ("Anna, is it possible that I am falling in love with you?") haven't worn the years.
How the years have treated "Full Circle" in its totality is moot: Bad acting certainly never helps a bad play, but it easily destroys a good one--Chekhov or Shakespeare poorly done can leave you writhing with the bends.
With the exception of John Durbin's emaciated Katz and Peter Lownds' authoritarian Russian Captain, none of the actors give us a sense of who their characters really are and where they're actually supposed to be. (Accents are haphazard: "Killem," Anna tells Rohde at one point, meaning "Kill him.") Daphne Ashbrook's Anna is passive and wan where she should be emotionally ravaged; Gregory Mortensen's Rohde is a blank; Sean McGuirk's Group Leader has a touch of the bopper dude that's out of place.
Louis Fantasia came in at the last minute as director, replacing John Jacobsen, who was relieved of duty within a week of opening. Going on as scheduled instead of postponing was clearly a mistake here. The production recalls a tart observation made about TV's ballyhooed "The Holocaust" a few years back: "This was Bel-Air explaining World War II to Brentwood."
Edward Sotto III's set evokes more of the South Pacific than wartime Berlin, Craig E. Lathrop's lighting and Molly Maginnis' costumes are good, and the authenticity of Leonora Schildkraut's sound is an unwittingly cruel rebuke to the fakiness of the performances.
"Full Circle" plays at 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, 7657 Melrose Ave., for an indefinite run. (213) 852-1445. (This is not an Actors for Themselves Production, which is the theater's regular in-house group.)