Hitler and a Jewish bible salesman share an apartment in Vienna. Rather than being the opening line of a joke, this is the premise for (the sadly deceased) George Tabori's play: Mein Kampf. This offbeat, surreal comedy, produced at Theatre for the New City, is a sideways look at Hitler's formative years applying for art school in Vienna, and a fictionalized account of the company he kept. Taking place over an indeterminate amount of time, we see the formation of his worldview, and his evolution into the dictator the world came to know and fear.
Daring to make Hitler the subject of humor in a human way is an interesting take. This seems to be, at least initially, Tabori's goal. Adolf is portrayed as an overly-serious, entitled young man with a mother complex and an inability to take a joke. He is puppyishly naïve, and emotionally fragile. It's funny to see him as a petulant, ineffectual child. His darkly prophetic lines are spoken earnestly to his roommate Shlomo. "I will give you an oven" he says as a token of thanks. However, as the play progresses, instead of seeing his development gradually into dictator, it's as if the switch is suddenly flipped in the second act, and he goes directly from art student to führer. A disappointing use of the concept.
John Freda as Shlomo, Omri Kadim as Hitler (Photo by Michael E. Mason)
That said, Omri Kadim is a fantastic Hitler. He masters the nuances of his behavior, and gives him a rich humanity that makes him all the more disturbing to watch. He plays the straight man to Jon Freda's Shlomo. Freda performs his character like a harried, down on his luck, Borscht-belt comedian. He's a charming stage presence, and a welcome watch, but it's not clear what the character's function is in the story. As the man who jokingly says to Hitler "You should go into politics", you would assume he would be part of a double-act. But he ends up being the main character.
Shlomo spends much of the play eulogizing, and talking about the book he is writing, which he calls 'Mein Kampf'. It is not clear whether Tabori is implying that a Jewish man wrote Hitler's infamous meisterwork, or if he just came up with the title. He talks to his other roommate (Jeff Burchfield), who claims to be god and discusses philosophy. He talks with his young virginal consort Gretchen (Andrea Lynn Green) who brings him a pet chicken and Shlomo puzzles over why she loves him. A woman called Death (Cordis Heard) visits, she seems very interested in Hitler. All of this adds up to… well, it's not clear.
John Freda as Shlomo, Andrea Lynn Green as Gretchen (Photo by Michael E. Mason)
Tabori doesn't seem to have a distinct thesis. A play about Hitler living with a Jewish man is so ripe with possibility that the product we are presented with leaves us wanting more. Director Manfred Bormann interprets Tabori to create a piece of theatre that, tonally, fits no distinct mode. The play is obviously a comedy with dramatic flair, with moments of bona fide hilarity and tragedy, but its infusions of the surreal are so down-played that it is difficult to know how to feel about the action. What here is inspired by historical fact? What is fabrication? What is the purpose of the surreal discourse? What does this information educate us to in reference to Hitler, the holocaust and the Jewish experience? The best plays present no easy answers, it's true, but they also lead you through a clear line of thought to more specific questions.
Mein Kampf is worth seeing for the performances, and for its frequent moments of exquisite dark comedy. However as a play to encourage greater social understanding or educate an audience on a grander theme, it skims past the mark. Recommended to fans of the Theatre for the New City, and the more curious and eccentric theatre-goer.