Marvelous Martin Magner. The venerable theater director has some miles on him, to say the least, but keeps forging forward, defying the odometer. In celebration of his 99th birthday, Magner directs "The Envoy," a drama by contemporary Swiss playwright Thomas Hurlimann, translated by Otho Eskin, that tackles the prickly subject of just how neutral the Swiss really were during World War II.
When Minister Zwygart (Josh Welsh), the head of the Swiss Embassy in Berlin, returns home after the war, he receives a loving reception from his doting sister (Erinn Strain), a fast-fading maiden, and his proud papa (Curt Lowens), a retired colonel dying of cancer. To his shock, Zwygart finds he's viewed by others not as a hero but as a traitor whose complicity with the Nazis has shamed them all. Worse, the mysterious "Company" for whom Zwygart works has elected him a convenient scapegoat, targeting him for persecution and possibly death.
As the ongoing Swiss banking scandals confirm, the subject is certainly topical, and Hurlimann's edgy, effective play is an astute choice for Magner, who typically directs classics. However, the production at the Marilyn Monroe Theatre is rough-edged compared to Magner's recent staging of Durrenmatt's "Play Strindberg (without tears . . . )" at the same theater, largely due to Welsh's stilted performance in the title role. Welsh's misplaced Method turn contrasts sharply with the elegant Strain and Lowens, whose bluebloods are more believably of the period.
Even so, the opportunity to see Magner's work is historic, not to be missed.
* "The Envoy," Marilyn Monroe Theatre at the Lee Strasberg Creative Center, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends May 22. $15. (323) 660-8587. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.