Lust, sex and love figure strongly in Martin Sherman's "Bent," but trust, fidelity and betrayal combine to form the strongest images. First produced in 1979 and a 1980 Tony nominee as best drama, the play is Plaza Players' current production.
It's also a fine example of the kind of intense, dramatic theater that often distinguishes the Ventura-based company from other local community theater groups. Sherman has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, but the subject matter here would guarantee the author and director Michael Maynez places on Sen. Jesse Helms' hit list.
The play opens in a Berlin apartment; it's 1934, and the terrors of the Third Reich are becoming increasingly apparent to members of the city's gay community, including a small-time operator named Max and his lover, Rudy. Homosexuals were one of the many groups singled out for persecution under Hitler, and Max and Rudy quickly find themselves among the victims on June 24, "The Night of the Long Knives."
By the beginning of the second act, Max is a prisoner at Dachau, disguised as a Jew to avoid what he believes to be the even harsher treatment he'd receive if his sexual preference was discovered by prison officials.
Whatever else its merits, "Bent" is not the feel-good hit of the fall season; the subject matter is unremittingly grim, and the climax is inevitable.
It's not a very good play; it's heavy-handed in its polemics and awkwardly crafted. The second act is virtually a two-man discourse, more reminiscent at times of "Who's on First?" than of Samuel Beckett as the author probably intended. And perhaps it depends too much on an audience that's already sympathetic--Sherman's description of the sex act is graphic enough to be off-putting, though the most graphic scene of all is one of the play's most inspired moments.
"Bent" is an important play, however; it's important in its serious treatment of a formerly taboo subject and as a pioneering effort to bring such subject matter to Broadway. Noble intentions were what probably earned it that Tony nomination; the more uplifting "Children of a Lesser God" won the award.
The tragedy is not always deeply dramatic: The first act plays more like a farce until a pair of SS officers shows up to disturb the mood, and there's some ironic wit in the prison scenes as well--humor that helps round out the characters and makes their fate even more disturbing.
Hugh McManigal is impressive as Max, a role originated by Ian McKellen in London and developed by Richard Gere when the play moved to Broadway. As the effeminate dancer, Rudy, Larry Gund creates an amusing character who takes on deeper dimensions as the play progresses. James D. Thompson plays Horst, a prisoner who does not deny his homosexuality; and Alan Price plays Greta, a straight man who headlines a drag show in which Rudy occasionally dances.
Some of the supporting characters are played with less distinction, though Sherman's stark dialogue doesn't really invite or encourage richly dramatic readings. Clipped delivery, on the other hand, sometimes sounds a bit ludicrous.
WHERE AND WHEN
"Bent" plays at 8 p.m. Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays through Nov. 24 at the Plaza Players Theater, 34 N. Palm St. (in the Old Town Livery courtyard) in Ventura. Tickets are $6 on Wednesdays, $7.50 on Fridays and $8.50 on Saturdays. For reservations or information, call (805) 643-9460.