John Marzilli and Josh Gordon in Bent
(Photo © Claudia Jaffee)
John Marzilli and Josh Gordon in Bent
(Photo © Claudia Jaffee)
In a way, seeing any production of Martin Sherman's grueling drama Bent is a trial. You sit in the theater exhausted and overwhelmed, wishing that you could be spared the agony of watching the characters suffer such cruel fates.

Those feelings are magnified by the current, harrowingly accurate Los Angeles production of the play, in which superb acting, lighting, sound, and scenic design allow the audience to experience the crumbling of humanity during the early days of the Holocaust. (Note: The show is being performed in the Deaf West Theatre space on Lankershim Boulevard but is not a presentation of that company.)

Bent -- which played on Broadway in 1979 with a young Richard Gere in the lead, following its premiere at the Royal Court in London with Ian McKellen starring -- begins on the "Night of the Long Knives" in 1934 when Hitler annihilated his gay deputy commander Ernst Rohm and all of his gay storm troopers. That same evening, the opportunistic Max (John Marzilli) brings the wrong man home from a cabaret. After the cocky, Adonis-like stranger toys with Max and his meek lover, Rudy (Jon Cohn), two S.S. officers burst in and kill him. Though Max and Rudy are apolitical party-boys, they soon become targets of the Nazis themselves.

On the train to Dachau, Max meets Horst (Josh Gordon), an ex-nurse who's already accustomed to Nazi brutality. They eventually become lovers in the camp, although they cannot touch or even stare at each other as they perform grueling and pointless daily tasks. Using their voices and some imagination, they find a way to connect, and Max discovers love for the first time.

What makes Bent so powerful is that we first see Max as an alcoholic, whorish drug dealer, not some innocent child who's cut down in the prime of life. It's easy to state that Anne Frank didn't deserve to be murdered in the camps, but to make the point that not even this human scavenger deserves the heinous wrath of the Nazis is tremendously important. Marzilli, who won the L.A. Drama Critics Award for his performance in The Grapes of Wrath, purposely avoids ingratiating himself with the audience; instead, he forces us to accept Max as is. It's a brave choice. By the end of the play, it's difficult not to admire the character's courage and ingenuity.

With his wire-rimmed glasses and bowl-style haircut, Cohn resembles Harry Potter, which makes the torture he suffers all the more vicious. Like Marzilli, Cohn displays his character's warts: Rudy's neediness, whininess, and helplessness. He's a real human being rather than a beacon of purity. Best of all is Gordon as the soul of the piece; he infuses Horst with eroticism, compassion, and resoluteness. The actor's presence is piercing.

Director Claudia Jaffee and her technical team leave the audience no room in which to hide from the horrors of the Holocaust. Set designer Kurt Boetcher moves us from Max's world of frivolous luxury to a truly hellish environment. Scrims enhance the flowery apartment that Max shares with Rudy but later reflect the harsh whites of the camps; the assembly of a barbed-wire fence at the start of Act II causes shudders of revulsion.

Sound designer Cricket S. Myers adds to the tension with gunshots, the noise of the train speeding along, and other vivid effects. Lighting designer Lisa D Katz brings scope to the small stage in creative ways. At a campsite, the orange lights of a fire glow and create a palpable sense of heat; during the train sequence, movement is simulated by lights flickering through the wooden planks of the train as it speeds inevitability toward Dachau.

As our global society repeats past mistakes over and over, it becomes more and more imperative to absorb the lessons of plays like Bent in order to stop the madness from continuing.