‘In Braunau’ is Out of Ideas: World Premiere (Sandbox) production by SF Playhouse

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“As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1”
– Godwin’s Law

As much as I’d love to have the number of regular readers as, say, Joseph Gordon-Levitt on Medium, I must admit that there’s a certain freedom in not having a loyal cadre of readers. On the one hand, that means I’m essentially just shouting out into the winds of the internet. On the other hand, it allows me to be as frank with my opinions as I damn-well please.

Still, I will occasionally indulge (delude?) myself into thinking that I actually do have a loyal fanbase. When that happens, I feel bad for not sticking to a regular schedule to provide these imaginary loyal readers the writings I’d promised. This is why several of my recent reviews have featured disclaimers pointing out that they’re reviews for shows I originally saw a few months ago. I mean, who’d actually notice that but me?

Having said that, today’s review has me stumbling upon one notable advantage of reviewing fresh shows with those that have already closed: I can see who did it better. And when it comes to satirizing White privilege and the idiosyncrasies of political correctness, Eureka Day did it a hell of a lot better than In Braunau.

 

Justin and Sarah have an unorthodox idea: to take the childhood home of Adolf Hitler and turn it into a “b ‘n d” (bed and dinner). The realtors specifically try to play down the knowledge of the location’s former occupants, but the aggressively-progressive couple (he’s White, she’s Asian) want the house’s dark history to be its selling point. They believe that rejuvenating the location will do some much-needed good for the world.

Still, there’s only so much two people can do to erase the stain of the 20th century’s most infamous dictator. When the couple’s poor business sense runs head-first into a pair of suspiciously ideological guests, Sarah in particular realizes that some ghosts – both literal and figurative – simply refuse to stay silent.

This is a terrible play. Worse than that is the fact that it didn’t have to be. The script, by Indian-American playwright Dipika Guha, touches on many timely ideas (White progressivism, NIMBY/YIMBY gentrification, the immediate power of social media, etc.) and some that are actually timeless (the Asian origins of the swastika, whether or not you would destroy “evil” before it had the chance to become so). None of that changes the fact that Guha’s script is a mess.

It begins as a would-be satire of the modern American progressive, with this interracial pair of self-described “Buddhist Unitarians” (with kids back in the States who “haven’t chosen their genders yet”) who force their Americanness on their Austro-German hosts. When they open the b ‘n d, their first guests are a Middle Eastern-Muslim couple who match our Americans in aggressiveness and mock the Yanks for not promoting themselves on social media. (Yes, this contemporary American couple treats Twitter the way your grandmother does.) When they finally do open a Twitter account that evening, the fact that it’s Hitler’s former home attracts the wrong kind of attention, but neither of them sees that at first.

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Justin (Josh Schell, left) and Sarah (Sango Tajima, right) share an incredibly awkward with their first guests: Soha (Sam Jackson) and Jai (Mohammad Shehata). Photo by Jessica Palopoli.

And through it all, the dialogue is… forced, for lack of a better term. These aren’t things human beings say, they’re the words of straw-people. As good an idea as it is to show the progressive Justin so easily seduced by White supremacists, it’s done in a way so as to suggest that he’s stupid, if not outright mentally challenged. Some rather intelligent and educated people have embraced horrifying ideologies; hand-waving them as just being stupid is both dangerous and the sort of dehumanizing tactic extremists would use.

Then there’s the casting – or perhaps the problem is how the cast is directed? Elissa Beth Stebbins continues to be a consistently great performer, and actor Sam Jackson continues to be one of the Bay Area’s most underutilized dramatic talents. The thing is, these two stand out so much because they’re the only two to play their multiple characters with any semblance of nuance. The rest of the cast seem to be directed by Susannah Martin to go as over-the-top as humanly possible. Like a pair of Spinal Tap speakers, they all go to 11 – with Josh Schell’s “Justin” and Sango Tajima’s “Sarah” going full-on Jack Torrence & Wendy before the play is over.

Perhaps the most egregious is the dual-casting of Mohammad Shehata as the Jai – the Muslim husband who’s played as an asshole from the moment he steps on stage – and Hitler. Last year, I saw the Martin-directed Shotgun production of The Events, in which Martin’s attempts at color-blind casting paradoxically turned out racist. In this case – and the script’s focus on the origins of the swastika – I’m genuinely curious as to whether having Shehata play both roles was the decision of the playwright or the director? Either way, it’s distracting.

To the play’s credit, it’s technical design is great. Angrette McClosky’s set is an interesting display of pre-century Eastern European design, though I couldn’t quite understand all the “ash”-like material on the ground. Though the use of Hitler/Nazi imagery is an easy target to hit these days, Wolfgang Wachalovsky’s projections are at least consistent. The only technical thing that really rubbed me wrong was the fighting choreography by Miguel Martinez. The characters all move in the fights light vaudevillian pratfallers, but I now wonder if that was a deliberate choice by the creators who were trying for satire and failing?

 

It was one year ago that I raved about Christopher Chen’s You Mean to Do Me Harm, another SF Playhouse Sandbox production by an Asian-American playwright. That play also tackled contemporary American racism, but did so without insulting the intelligence of its audience or reducing its characters stereotypes. That play, I’m please know, will have a full-fledged production this Autumn as the opener for the Playhouse’s 2018/19 season.

Dipika Guha also has a play in the upcoming season (the Bill English-directed Yoga Play) and I’m actually looking forward to it, but I sincerely hope that In Braunau goes through some major rewriting and workshopping before it’s put only anyone’s season line-up. The ideas of a story are there, but the execution is a mess. I gather it wants to be a story about how easy it is to repeat the mistakes of the past, but the script just winds up making mistakes of its own.

GRADE:                                D+

In Braunau is scheduled to run until the 7th of July at the Rueff Stage of the ACT Strand Theater in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 90 minutes with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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