Playwright John Hans Menkes, who as a boy watched the Germans march into Vienna (and who for the past 20 years has been the head of neurology at UCLA), has written a play about the Nazi in all of us--a disquieting thought that "The Last Inquisitor" at the Fig Tree Theater cerebrally underscores.
The production, with director Pasquale Di Palermo refining the play's original staging last year at the Pilot Theater, features an end-of-the-war, real-life Gestapo chief (Ernst Kaltenbrunner) whom actor Myron Natwick invests with a chill that is altogether human rather than maniacal. It is this distinction that lifts the play above the stereotypical S.S. drama.
The play's other specific value is its effort to break down "the fourth wall," whereby a stage character who is first seen as a waiter in an Austrian inn, leaps across time and space to materialize as a real actor literally seduced into taking himself seriously as Adolf Eichmann.
This device--a character who steps out of the play only to be attracted to the madness in it--is the playwright's thrust: Don't ask how could the Holocaust have happened; look in the mirror. By extension, the play says stop excoriating the Germans, they were only acting like people. Significantly, the playwright is Jewish and lost most of his family in the camps.
This certainly makes the play a rigorous psychological and intellectual exercise. But the dramatic experience is not an emotional one.
The character of the actor drawn into the horror and attraction of Nazism is played by a rotund John Apicella, who suggests a feverish circus clown. You should identify with this man, but you don't and the play's power dissipates as a result. The staging is also too patchy, too fractured to permit a sense of artful seamlessness.
Production values are fine, the nine actors vivid and the theme discomforting for the right reasons. But this play within a play is ultimately a series of tableaux, some melodramatic, that create more distance than involvement.
Performances at 6539 Santa Monica Blvd. are Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 7 p.m., until Dec. 7 (213) 463-6893.
'P.A.N.I.C. IN GRIFFITH PARK'
Lyndon LaRouche's Proposition 64 directly inspired this depiction of a near-future in which people with contagious diseases are forcibly interned in correction centers, in this case a state-run camp for AIDS victims in Griffith Park.
The play's topicality has been dimmed a bit by this week's rejection of Prop. 64, except that only a battle, not a war, was won.
The play, at the Court Theater, remains timely even while the sting is momentarily out of it.
Playwright David Reid's title, "P.A.N.I.C. in Griffith Park," utilizes the perfect acronym for the LaRouche-coined "Prevent AIDS Now Initiative Committee." The five cast members draw distinctive characterizations, the set and sound design strikingly convey a Boy Scout bivouac-turned-outdoor prison, and one actor (Jason Stuart) runs away with the show. He has all the funny lines and sharply incorporates them into his troubled, miserable character.
As implicit, issue-oriented drama, "P.A.N.I.C." works well enough. Otherwise, director Lee Garlington has a soaper on her hands. The play is not about AIDS as such, nor is it a satire, as promoted. If you remove the social urgency behind the writing, the characters are callow and/or self-centered. The best-written is a straight musician on the lam, and Van Quattro brightly fills the role.
The play's chief flaw is lack of focus: an unwieldy mix of political drama, homosexual stress and snappy one-liners.
Performances at 722 N. La Cienega Blvd. are tonight through Sunday, 8 p.m., (213) 855-8953.
ONE-ACTS AT BEVERLY HILLS PLAYHOUSE
Actress Julia Fairbanks plays a seriously disturbed wife alone in her kitchen fantasizing, among other things, an interview with Barbara Walters. Fairbanks' delivery swirls and darkens, plunging us into the skin of a woman for whom life can no longer be a denial.
The solo performance, in playwright Laurie O'Brien's one-act, "Inside Out," at the Beverly Hills Playhouse, is a demanding stretch for an actress, and Fairbanks daringly throws caution aside while never lapsing into excess.
Director Deborah Dalton keeps Fairbanks on a rope that always seems ready to snap. The work threatens danger, and it certainly talks to domestic women whose identity strings are unraveling.
"The Anteroom," by Kleran Angelini, also on the bill, is less ostensibly dramatic. Director John Megna weaves a Pinteresque tone into the meeting of two long-separated brothers (well played by Barry Lynch and Tony Maggio) at the wake of an uncle they both disliked. A friend, sweetly airy in the head, is performed with beguiling simplicity by Richard Moffitt.
Phil Schmidt's set and lighting design complement the evening's divergent textures. Both works were nourished in the Los Angeles Playwrights Group under the aegis of Camelot Artists.
Performances at 254 S. Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills are Saturdays and Sundays, 5:30 p.m., until Dec. 7, (213) 466-1767.
ONE-ACTS AT ACTORS ALLEY TOO
Another pair of one-acts, at the Actors Alley Too, display wildly divergent styles--one capably handled in the mode of a sitcom sketch, the other almost dreamlike in its lyrical realism.
The latter, "There's a Land That's Fair and Bright," by Colin Drake, is deceptively mesmerizing, sensitively directed by Mark Measures and skillfully acted. A young drifter (Rick Giesie) stumbles into the desert trackside home of two older vagabonds (Tony Burton and Martin Schnitzer). The encounter of the naive garrulous youth and the laconic oldsters is fraught with warmth and meanness, mystery and the echo of myth.
Burton's non-verbal, smiling openness is a wonderful characterization, and Schnitzer's slow, laconic, subtle testing of the youth is a highly individualized and burnished performance.
Playwright Bill Barnett's "Queen of the One-Liners," about a mismatched pair of women seated together in an airliner, features Bobbi Holtzman's irrepressibility gradually breaking down the tense demeanor of Zoe Walrond's self-declared fearful flier.
Holtzman overdoes her antic/manic aging comedienne and appears to be playing to the audience instead of her seat companion.
Performances at 4334 Van Nuys Blvd., Sherman Oaks are Mondays through Wednesdays, 8 p.m., until Nov. 26. (818) 986-7440.