Holocaust Remembrance Week has come and gone (with television airings of "Genocide," "Shoah," "Messenger From Poland" and "The Children of Terezin"), its images startlingly familiar--and all too painful. But at the Coast Playhouse, a group of actors have to relive that horror every night. The vehicle is Martin Sherman's "Bent," a story of gay love--and lives--forever shattered under Nazi oppression.
"The way to make it bearable is to take it away from the realm of 'This is a play about the Holocaust,' " explained David Marshall Grant, who's directing and playing the lead. "I had to point out to everybody that although this is the setting, we can't play it. We can't play the concentration camp, the 6 million dead. What we have to play as actors is the very specific, almost banal relationship between this character and this character, this character and this character.
"You keep it contained, make it about a relationship that could be happening anywhere: in a coffee shop in New York or on a ski slope in Geneva. Then suddenly the camera pans back and you see these two people in their (concentration camp) context--and it hits you." As for managing his own psyche, he acknowledged that the subject is "disturbing. But it's the same thing: you've got to compartmentalize, do it for those two hours. It sounds so calculated, but that's what a lot of acting is."
Actually, Grant--who played the role of Rudy in the 1980 Broadway version of "Bent"--never intended to act in this production. Steven Bauer was set to play Max, but exited 10 days before previews for a movie role. "Steven was wonderful," said Grant. "He left because it was (a movie based on) a play he did last year--"Nanawatai" at the L.A. Theatre Center--something he'd committed to, just like this. There are no hard feelings at all."
Nevertheless, with Bauer gone, Grant was faced with two options: cancel the production or step in. He decided on the latter--warily.
"I always envisioned Max as tall, dark and handsome," he noted. "He's a wheeler-dealer, someone whose motivations are entirely for himself, a survivor. He's also a rich boy, an aristocrat. I can relate to that to a certain extent: I grew up in Westport, Conn., around people like that. I also understand what it's like to try to get by on your charm and--God forbid--your good looks, because that's what a lot of actors do."
He grinned. "I realized my concept of Max was limited. First, that he didn't have to be tall, dark and handsome--and also that he's someone in great conflict with his emotional needs. I always thought that the play was about a man who learns to love. But it's not. It's about a man who learns that he has already loved. It means in playing the part there has to be a lot of conflict: 'I may feel these unselfish, loving things--yet they're not in my own self-interest.' And that I felt I was qualified to deal with."
How did the past staging fit in?
"For me, that was a very special time," he emphasized. "Richard Gere was a spectacular Max; I loved working with him. David Dukes was a marvelous Horst, Robert Allan Ackerman directed it wonderfully. So I wanted an experience like that. But in order to do that, I had to let go of any memories or ideas I had from that production. I didn't want to do an imitation. And if you don't start from scratch, organically find your own production, it'll never be as rich."
Did he have any doubts that local audiences would embrace the play?
"None," Grant, 30, said firmly. "Everyone else I talked to did. I took it to a lot of people, and they all said it was depressing, a downer, the play had no audience--and that there's no theater in Los Angeles." He shrugged. "That's not so much a judgment on people's taste as it is a judgment on the state of theater. It's a shame that a medium as wonderful as theater is almost financially prohibitive. I mean, you cannot make money doing theater.
"The society we live in does not encourage endeavors that are not commercial. I don't understand--what's so different about a play and a movie? There's nothing highbrow about what we're doing here. Challenging, maybe. But I think audiences respond to that. And we have a responsibility as performers to challenge people--not just for their own good, but for our own."
And how did he start?
"You know how I started," he kidded. "We all start that way. I started acting in high school, did Mitch in 'Streetcar Named Desire,' the American premiere of Pinter's 'Old Times' when I was in the tenth grade." After a short stint in college and a long one at Yale Drama School, he applied to the National Playwrights Conference and was accepted. One of the plays he read that summer was "Bent," and a year later, when it was to be staged on Broadway, Grant got the nod.
Since then, his credits have included film ("French Postcards," "American Flyers") and theater (locally: "Streamers"--which he directed at the Fig Tree--and "Rat in the Skull" at Taper, Too).
"It's the actor's story," he said lightly. "I didn't get that part. I made that movie; it didn't make any money. I did that play, then I didn't get that play . . . You don't choose to be an actor; you just fall into it. What happens is that you don't choose to go back to school and become a lawyer or a teacher. You're always making choices not to do other things--and suddenly you're stuck being an actor."