Well, there's good reason for the short story feel to director Frank Dunlop's sleek production. Kathrine Kressmann Taylor wrote her brief and powerful work in 1938 as an economical one-two punch of an anecdote, had it published in the venerated periodical Story and watched it instantly received by critics as a minor classic. Now Dunlop, absent from New York for some time, has molded it into a play.
The set-up -- which you take in while thoroughly believing the fictional characters at the center have to be absolutely real -- is that two old friends exchange a series of letters. There are 18 of them and one cablegram. The correspondents are Max Eisenstein and Martin Schulse, German immigrants partnered in a San Francisco art gallery. The letters start flying in November, 1932, when Schulse (William Atherton) has returned to Germany just as Adolf Hitler is about to assume the government helm. Eisenstein (Jim Dale), meanwhile, has remained in California, selling Picassos and other hot-commodity painters to mostly Jewish patrons.
Over the course of only a few months, the affectionate tone shared by the old pals shifts. The returning Schulse joins the National Socialist Party, becoming increasingly drawn to Adolf Hitler's cause of Aryan purity. Eisenstein, who appears to be a devout secular Jew, is at a loss to understand his longtime pal's change. He becomes even more devastated when his actress sister Griselle suffers the dire consequences of having returned to Germany. She comes to particular grief when the married Schulse, with whom she's had an affair, turns her away from his door as the storm troupers and their hounds are nipping at her heels.
In explaining his intensifying chilly and chilling attitude, Schulse wrote in one of his terse epistles, "You will be a Jew first and wail for your people. This I understand. It is the Semitic character. You lament, but you are never brave enough to fight back." The dismissive comment is Schulse's undoing, because the disoriented Eisenstein contrives a way to fight back. More won't be revealed here, because it would spoil Taylor's and Dunlop's thrilling, subtly theatrical finish. But maybe a word to the wise is: Don't read the slim book -- published again recently after many out-of-print years -- before seeing the play. The joy of Eisenstein's retaliation as it dawns on you is too good to pass up by peeking at the original.
Incidentally, Taylor's story is like an O. Henry yarn rewritten by Edgar Allan Poe or H.P. Lovecraft. Its epistolary construction may also strike theater lovers as a two-hander along the lines of A.R. Gurney's Love Letter had Gurney instead been provoked to compose something called Hate Letters. (As with Love Letters the value in subsequent outings of Dunlop's easy-to-produce enterprise is also immeasurable. Not since Sleuth have two men gotten themselves in such involving metaphoric half-nelsons.) Transferring Taylor from page to stage was made easy for director-adapter (or editor, as it says in the Playbill) Dunlop. Indeed, all he needed to do was lift the letters verbatim and occasionally throw in a moment when one of the men recites a phrase aloud with the other, while supposedly reading. And he does it all in just over an hour.
While all that's really required to make a bang-up job of Taylor's piece are two creative actors and two three-ring binders, Dunlop has brought together set designer James Youmans, costume designer Jim Stewart, lighting designer David Lander, and sound designer Matthew Burton to provide stage magic -- the sort of production values that put the smooth icing on this kind of a stage cake. Youmans divides the stage into Eisenstein's study and Schulse's study, placing a long table downstage center that's half Biedermeier (the Shulse end) and half pre-Richard Meier (the Eisenstein end). At the back he positions shelves that are equally mixed, yet matched. Lander dresses Eisenstein like a prosperous art dealer and gives Schulse a sumptuous dressing gown out of which to step into an officer's uniform. Lander's lighting fits the altering moods. Burton saves his major sound cue and coup for the final scary-gratifying sequence. He's also rigged his track so that when Eisenstein plays "Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries" on his Victrola, the broken 78 repeats the words "worry so."
Dunlop knows what to do with his cast. For one thing, he doesn't confine the two players to separate sides of the playing area. They invade each other's territories, just as they invade each other's concerns. Dunlop has worked before with Jim Dale, of course, having collaborated 30 years ago on Scapino -- for which each won a Tony. As is Dale's frequent inclination, he's active to a fault. The busy-ness here is understandable, since he's confronted with vivifying letters; the bouncing about is confined to the early segment. As what he's reading alarms him more and more, Dale's Eisenstein reacts with small movements of his eyes and mouth, of his limbs. The horror gripping him is unsettling; his body sinks into itself. Good as Dale is, his transcendent minute is the last one. It won't be described here, but it reflects a psychological truth that may never have occurred to Taylor to freeze. Had she wanted to, she might not have found a way. Atherton, once a tall wisp of a fellow but now beginning to take on Burt Lancaster's imposing girth, lets Schulse's humanity drain gradually, until he's as stiff as his black leather boots. He also saves the best for last, crumbling on realizing his abandoned friend has surprising resources.
Watching Address Unknown unfold with a dark, inexorable magnetism, an observer previously unaware of Taylor (who died at 92 in 1996), wonders, Who is this woman and how did this nightmare narrative occur to her? Taylor was living in New York City during the late 30s and once wrote, "A short time before the war, some cultivated, intellectual, warmhearted German friends of mine returned to Germany after living in the United States. In a very short time they turned into sworn Nazis. They refused to listen to the slightest criticism about Hitler. During a return visit to California, they met an old, dear friend of theirs on the street who had been very close to them and who was a Jew. They did not speak to him. They turned their backs on him when he held his hands out to embrace them." Taylor also wrote about hearing reports of damaging letters sent to Germany. From these accounts, she fabricated her incisive, prescient what-if. (Address Unknown will make an intriguing companion piece to Philip Roth's fall novel, The Plot Against America, in which Charles Lindbergh is elected President in 1940.)