The problems that vexed Lillian Hellman’s “sound the alarm” play Watch on the Rhine at its debut in 1941 still apply to the handsome production at Arena Stage today.
Worse yet, it’s likely that the play’s awkward structure, overwritten talkiness and reserved, bloodless drama have aged not like a velvety single malt Scotch, but rather like an overripe banana.
Hellman penned the play as a wake-up call to a stubbornly disinclined America sitting on the sidelines as Hitler and the Nazis rode roughshod through Europe. It begins as a familiar if outmoded drawing room comedy in which the audience is introduced to a disparate group of characters gathering for breakfast within the plush confines of suburban Washington D.C.
The spectators on press night let loose a spirited cheer at first sight of stage and screen actress Marsha Mason,
playing socialite and matriarch Fanny Farrelly. She comically squabbles and picks at servants, houseguests and family members alike, including her son, David (Thomas Keegan), an unmarried lawyer; her estranged daughter Sara (Lise Bruneau), Sara’s mysterious German husband Kurt (Andrew Long) and their kids; a broke Romanian count nicknamed Teck (J Anthony Crane) and his unhappy American wife Martha (Natalia Payne).
It’s an assemblage with dramatic potential due to the attraction between David and Martha and the gathering tension between Kurt—who we come to find out is an active leader in the Nazi resistance—and Teck, who is not so troubled by the dark rise of expansionist fascism across the Atlantic.
It takes a while, but persevering through corny domestic badinage and the unnecessary addition of children’s roles, events sharpen into a standoff steeped in international espionage and intrigue like something from a Hitchcock film. Mid-career Hitchcock that is—think a dapper Claude Rains snapping at someone, music swells, flash of violence, a body falls. My companion described it as “pretty anticlimactic,” but that’s not entirely fair, due to Long’s impassioned unburdening a bit later.
So maybe not everyone felt “shaken out of the magnolias,” as Fanny says, but does the play—meant for another time and purpose—still resonate beyond the clunky structure?
The central question coursing throughout the play is indefinite and provocative: Why do some people turn away from the magnetism of conformity to risk their lives and legacies for ideology, while most harbor opinions but can’t quite detach from complacency, or worse yet, the remainder who don’t see any gain in choosing and wait to amorally sift through the resultant wreckage for serviceable leftovers?
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Watch on the Rhine
closes March 5, 2017
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It is a voluble question and nags the viewer, as good theater should. And its manifestation is finely evidenced in the characters of Hellman’s play, and especially well-represented by the two Europeans Kurt and Teck (and best performed by Long and Crane).
The contrariety of the open-faced probity of life in America with the much older antipathies that the foreign characters know is deeply perceptive and well played. The blessed geography and short history of this country in relation to the rest of the league of nations forever keeps us above the fray, even when intimately involved. Tutsi and Hutu, Contras and Sandinistas, Israelis and Palestinians will always understand each other better than we can. The two Europeans are instantly, albeit subtly, wary of one another and trying to pick up on clues between them is the most fun had with the play as it winds to its convulsive conclusion.
The production is beautifully designed, starting with the elegant, well-proportioned gazebo, set “in the round” by Todd Rosenthal, and benefits from the musical flourishes from music and sound designer David van Tieghem and the delightful period costuming by Judith Bowden.
Even though Mason is the star of the marketing material, the role of Fanny is trifling and predictable. Long, Bruneau and Payne are much better in meatier roles, showcasing weariness and vulnerability through strength and conviction.
Crane is especially good as the villain of the piece; an unctuous racketeer, simultaneously clenched and debonair throughout, his portrayal is a delectable creation.
Ultimately, Watch on the Rhine can’t overcome its built-in defects, but offers a challenging theme, fine design work and a few memorable moments.
Watch on the Rhine by Lillian Hellman. Directed by Jackie Maxwell. Featuring Helen Hedman, Marsha Mason, Addison Switzer, Thomas Keegan, Natalia Payne, J Anthony Crane, Lise Bruneau, Ethan Miller, Tyler Bowman, Lucy Breedlove and Andrew Long. Set Design: Todd Rosenthal. Lighting Design: Nancy Schertler. Costume Design: Judith Bowden. Original Music and Sound Design: David van Tieghem. Wig Design: Anne Nesmith. Stage Manager: Kurt Hall. Presented by Arena Stage. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.