There’s nothing scary, at first, about Rudolph, the elderly gentleman who shows up at Albert and Bettina’s house one Christmas Eve in “Winter Solstice,” a 2013 play by the German writer Roland Schimmelpfennig, translated by David Tushingham, which is having its West Coast premiere at City Garage.
Rudolph is handsome, polite, well-spoken and elegantly dressed. As played by the irresistible Troy Dunn, he conveys cultural refinement along with a touch of pathos. Some misfortune, perhaps, has driven him from his lofty milieu and thrown him on the mercy of these unwelcoming strangers.
And what we’ve learned about Albert (Taylor Lee Marr) and Bettina (Natasha Dr. Clair-Johnson) hasn’t endeared them to us. The fortyish pair have been bickering since we met them. Bettina’s mother, Corrina (Geraldine Fuentes), is visiting for the holidays, and neither Bettina nor Albert wants the burden of being hospitable to her. When they learn that Corrina invited Rudolph to their house after meeting him on the train, they are appalled by the intrusion but relieved to offload their conversational obligations onto him.
Frequently interrupting the onstage action, the play’s narrators, “Him/Writer” (David Frank) and “Her/Writer” (Kat Johnston), read stage directions and character descriptions out loud. This meta-theatrical storytelling strategy is a bit risky — it could seem mannered, or become tedious — but as choreographed by director Frederique Michel, it succeeds, adding not only a lot of dark humor but a mounting suspense to what might otherwise look like an ordinary dinner party.
The narration, written with a cool, acerbic humor, quickly cements our negative impression of the household, filling us in on the tensions below the surface. Albert is a sociologist and “respected essayist.” Bettina is an amateur filmmaker. They have “never voted for a conservative candidate.” But they’re also vain, smug and selfish. They drink too much wine; Albert gulps pills in the bathroom. Both are frantically pursuing extramarital affairs. They scarcely notice their young daughter (who’s actually, appropriately, invisible, her dialogue supplied by a narrator).
Compared with this crowd, Rudolph is a charmer. He flirts with Corrina and frolics with the little girl. He performs Chopin and Bach on the piano; he speaks rapturously about art; he helps set up the Christmas tree — even though poor Albert is allergic. He even acts out an opera he has written.
But some things are odd. For one thing, he’s from Paraguay, where his German parents emigrated years earlier. “Anything is possible in Paraguay,” he croons seductively to the enchanted Corrina. He refers in passing to the “world order.” At one point he dismisses “individualism” as “a hollow euphoria.” He upholds music as proof of the perfection of the universe — adding, offhand, that no great composers were Jewish.
Rudolph never comes right out and claims to be an escaped Nazi from the Third Reich, but Albert — who is working on a book called “Christmas in Auschwitz” — is powerfully affected by the emerging hints of a familiar, chilling ideology.
So why can’t Albert do anything about it but panic and sweat and swallow pills? How is it that fascism, so easy to dismiss in theory, leaves its opponents so helpless when it knocks on the door, smiling and cultured and reasonable?
It’s a question we’ve all had plenty of opportunities recently to ask, and fail to answer, and it lends a gripping urgency to this well performed dark comedy.
“Winter Solstice,” City Garage, 2525 Michigan Ave., Building T1, Santa Monica. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 25. $25. (310) 453-9930 or www.citygarage.org. Running time: 2 hours.