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THEATER REVIEW : Actors' Gang Delivers Striking, Unsettling 'Mein Kampf'

August 17, 1994|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Think of slapstick, and the name Adolf Hitler doesn't usually spring to mind.

Yet that's precisely the outrageous connection that ignites "Mein Kampf," the 1987 philosophical farce by one of Europe's leading avant-garde playwright-directors, George Tabori. The play makes its striking U.S. debut in the appropriately confrontational hands of the Actors' Gang.

In what might be darkly subtitled "The Wunder Years," Tabori constructs an allegorical expressionist tableau in which the young Hitler (Joseph Grimm)--an aspiring and singularly untalented painter newly arrived in pre-World War I Vienna--enters a homeless shelter where he forms an unlikely friendship with Jewish bookseller Shlomo Herzl (Michael Neimand).

Alternating between fits of painful insecurity and raving bluster, Grimm's Hitler is a hopeless misfit utterly lacking in the social graces. His awkwardness endears him to Shlomo, who fusses over his new bunkmate with the single-mindedness of a Jewish mother--lopping Hitler's pointed mustache into its familiar trim, suggesting he should go into politics, and even supplying the title for his manifesto.

In Shlomo's ill-advised attempts to be helpful, Neimand recalls the whiny bumbling of an early Jerry Lewis. Their relationship plays like vaudeville--at least in the first act. Musical director David Robbins even supplies cymbal crashes to punch the numerous pratfalls and sight gags.

All slapstick by way of Brecht and Beckett, to be sure--which means tough-minded, sharp-edged, even scatological. In this unsettling mix of shtick and sick, the humor doesn't diffuse the mounting horror as Hitler evolves from buffoon to megalomaniac, but, as Tabori puts it, "if the ending cannot be happy, at least let it be laughable."

Uncompromising in its allegiance to the strengths as well as the limitations of Brechtian epic theater, "Mein Kampf" prods viewers toward cerebral rather than emotional engagement.

After a remarkably restrained and contemplative first half (by Actors' Gang standards) that hovers uncomfortably close to tedium at times, director Michael Schlitt pulls out all the stops, making up for the play's emotional void with a visceral assault on the senses as Richard Hoover's expansive wooden hovel set and Douglas D. Smith's surrealistic lighting conspire to evoke the existential hell that was Nazi Germany.

Not for the squeamish, the demonic finale is all too fitting, for in Shlomo's contribution to Hitler's rise lies far more than the frequently debated issue of victims' complicity in their own fate. Tabori serves up a disturbing recognition about how humanism, by its very tolerance, nurtures its own inhuman monsters.

* "Mein Kampf," Actors' Gang, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends Sept. 17. $15. (213) 466-1767. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

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