“Cynicism is an unpleasant way of saying the truth.”
– Lillian Hellman, The Little Foxes (1939)
I’ll be honest with ya, folks: I’m not all that familiar with Lillian Hellman’s work.
As much as I admired her contemporaries like Lorraine Hansberry and Dorothy Parker, Hellman’s work somehow always fell out of my direct radar. I say this as someone who once wrote the introduction for a short play in which Hellman’s testimony before the HUAC was read. Yet I know her less from her scripts and more from that Simpsons joke about her being Lisa’s feminist hero who wound up creating her own brand of mayo.
Still, it’s never too late to discover the work of a classic author, especially one like Hellman – lauded as much for her personal convictions as she was her work. And in this time of travel bans, border walls, and… well… Nazis, Hellman’s 1941 screed against fascism has just as much relevance now as it did when it was first produced. Unfortunately, it’s not as likely to invigorate 2017 audiences as it did those in ’41. What’s more, Berkeley Rep’s new production seems to have abandoned any sense of passion for the sake of chest-beating and proselytizing.
The year is 1940 and the Farrelly home is abuzz with anticipation. For the first time in 20 years, matriarch Fanny will once again lay eyes on her daughter Sara since the young woman left for Europe with her German husband, Kurt Mueller. It will be the sharp-tongued matron’s first time meeting her three grandchildren and the Mueller family’s first time sleeping in a home where resources aren’t scarce. Also staying at the house are Fanny’s son, foreign visitor Teck de Brancovis, and Teck’s wife Marthe.
As the days pass and tensions raise, what begins as an awkward-but-pleasant family reunion becomes a clash of social statuses and ideologies. Before long, the idyllic home in the US capital is the latest battleground for a way being fought across the Atlantic.
Earlier this year, I saw two productions of Henrik Ibsen plays that both had problems with tone. The first made the mistake of taking one of his most famous dramas and inexplicably playing it as an off-the-wall farce; the second went the opposite direction, stripping another drama of any passion or emotion. This new Berkeley Rep production of Watch on the Rhine falls into the latter category, but as I’m not all that familiar with Hellman’s work, I’m left to wonder how many of the show’s flaws can be blamed on the staging and how many on the text itself?
Hellman’s play was no doubt bold for its time: written at a time when many Americans had pro-Nazi sympathies and first produced seven months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the play’s anti-fascist stance is a bold call-to-arms that went against many popular sensibilities – especially those of what-we-now-call “the 1%”. Yet, it also reflects its time in its rather clumsy delivery of exposition and the way it’s determined to wrap everything up in a neat little bow. The final scene in particular completely falls apart – for a scene in which a main character must now live in fear of being caught by Nazis or local law enforcement, the scene is surprisingly free of tension. Everyone seems to take their sweet time and there’s no “ticking clock” element to suggest urgency (unless you count me checking my watch). When there’s more Nazi-related tension to be found in The Sound of Music, you know you’ve made a misstep.
Director Lisa Peterson sometimes appears at a loss as to what to do with her cast, frequently positioning them awkwardly with their backs to the audience or having them simply stand around. Most of them deliver their lines in a “manufactured” form that I first thought was meant to evoke the acting style of the time (similar to Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven), but now I’m not so sure. Faring worst is David Farrelly actor Hugh Kennedy; he has a bit of a “Ned Flanders”-esque demeanor and delivery that are no help when tensions begin to rise. But then again, the cast also includes the Bay Area’s own incredibly talented Leontyne Mbele-Mbong as the Farrelly’s housekeeper Anise, so perhaps it is a case of not knowing how to best use the talent onstage.
The one bright stand-out is Caitlin O’Connell as matriarch Fanny Farrelly. She brings a welcome energy to every moment she’s onstage and pulls off Fanny’s sharp tongue with the greatest of ease. Though Hellman was only 35 when she wrote the play, it’s easy to imagine the infamously “no bullshit” playwright creating Fanny as an avatar just as Kurt Meuller is a forced mouthpiece for her political leanings.
This being Berkeley Rep, the set is great to look at. Neil Patel’s intricate design suggests a home to which the cleanliness is a credit to the cleaning staff, but where the ghosts of former residents still linger. Raquel Barreto’s costumes are equally detailed, making one long for the days when vests and polished shoes were easier to come by. Paul Prendegrast’s sounds are serviceable; outside of a gunshot, the “sounds” are pretty limited to gong-like tones that signal the beginning and end of a scene. Similarly, Alexander Nichols’ are really just… “on” during the entire show, with no noticeable difference outside of beginning and ending shifts. All in all, top-notch craftsmanship that’s unfortunately hindered by the aforementioned lack of passion in this production.
Paradoxically enough, I’m actually now more curious to seek out more work by Hellman. Granted, I hope her other dramatic writings have sturdier finales, but hers was a storied life and she’s a renowned storyteller. If I can consciously seek out productions of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” I can look at other Hellman work. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that a story brimming with emotion and conviction comes off surprisingly stale. Whatever flaws may be inherent to the text, it isn’t at all helped by odd staging, monotone delivery, or a runtime that feels as if it stretches into infinity.
Watch on the Rhine is scheduled to run until the 14th of January in the Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre.
The show runs roughly 2 ½ hours with one 15-min. intermission and one 5-min. in-theatre transition.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.