Patrick Heusinger and Charlie Hofheimer in Martin Sherman's Bent, directed by Moisés Kaufman, at the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum.
Patrick Heusinger and Charlie Hofheimer in Martin Sherman's Bent, directed by Moisés Kaufman, at the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum.
(© Craig Schwartz)

Bent, playwright Martin Sherman's revelatory 1979 play about the gay experience in Nazi concentration camps, receives an arresting production at the Mark Taper Forum. Moisés Kaufman's direction and his stellar cast will leave audiences breathless.

From the start, the play knocks the audience off-kilter. The first act begins as a racy sex comedy. In 1934 Berlin, opportunist Max (Patrick Heusinger) wakes up from his umpteenth hangover to discover from his boyfriend, Rudy (Andy Mientus), that in a drunken stupor the night before, Max brought home a storm trooper (Tom Berklund). The banter and sexual escapades end abruptly when the SS breaks in and slaughters the gay member of Hitler's army in Max and Rudy's living room. Max and Rudy suddenly become enemies of the state.

As a result, Max employs his deal-making skills to try to protect them both, while Rudy finds a job day-laboring to put food on their table. However, they can run from the Nazis only for so long. Max is eventually captured and sent to Dachau. He bargains his way into the Jewish barracks, which enables him to wear a yellow star instead the pink triangle of a "pervert," the lowest faction in the camp. Max suffers the indignities common at Dachau, including proving his heterosexuality in a repugnant way, and winds up in a Beckettian work detail moving rocks from one spot to another and back again. At the camp, he meets a gay activist, Horst (Charlie Hofheimer), and pays off the Nazis so the two can share the same work detail. The two find love in a place where even looking at each other could result in severe punishment or even death.

Sherman's harrowing play fuels such themes as survival, love, and death as an act of defiance. Director Kaufman keeps the screws tight, building the atrocity throughout the play. He allows the audience breathing room with comical moments, but doesn't permit those moments to dissipate the tension.

Max is a difficult character: A child of the bourgeoisie, he is a self-involved man used to manipulating the system. He even finds ways to get what he wants in the camps. Heusinger does not smooth over Max's ugly attributes. He seems to revel in masochism. But the audience witnesses his enlightenment through his friendship with Horst.

Hofheimer's Horst is rebellious, angry, and sexual, exhibiting risqué (and risky) behavior in a concentration camp. As the frail Rudy, Mientus reflects a kindness and gentleness that the Nazis enjoyed destroying throughout their reign. In a cameo, Scissor Sisters front man Jake Shears reveals his talent as an actor playing the character Greta, a drag performer.

Shears and composer Lance Horne rewrote the music for "Streets of Berlin" (keeping Sherman's original lyrics) and turned it into a seductive number for Greta. This new version captures the Weimar sound of Kurt Weill, while also sounding similar to Leiber and Stoller's "Is That All There Is?," a '60s tune that paid tribute to this period in German culture. The melody, along with Kaufman's staging of the number, paints a picture of the decadence that Nazism will strike at very soon. The moment is so effective and beautifully acted, it makes one wish that Shears as Greta could remain in the show for longer than one scene.

Beowulf Boritt's clever set also mirrors the play's tonal mutability, converting from a standard block in order to first represent an apartment and later an imposing SS guard tower.

In the current climate of heightened racial, religious, and homophobic tensions both at home and abroad, Bent is not a history lesson, it's a call to conscience, reminding us that humans with the same kind of hatred that fueled Hitler still exist. Watching the atrocities in Bent, theatergoers will be moved and empowered enough to walk away saying, "Never again."