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Ed Swidey and Christopher Amitrano in Bent
There would seem to be several reasons why Martin Sherman's Bent is not generally recognized as one of the greatest and most profound plays of its era. Though it received a fair amount of critical acclaim when first performed in London and New York in the late 1970s in productions that respectively starred Ian McKellen and Richard Gere, the subject matter of the play--the brutal persecution and murder of homosexuals by the Nazis--worked against its popularity among a general audience. Even today, tragically, the play's message that gay people are as capable of love as anyone else and should not be ostracized in any way isn't universally embraced.

Another strike against Bent's reputation is the fact that its belated film version--released in 1997, starring Clive Owen and Lothaire Bluteau--was poorly directed by Sean Mathias, who apparently didn't trust the material enough to present it in a straightforward manner. But make no mistake: The play is a masterpiece. Despite several harrowing scenes, it is ultimately life affirming in its tale of Max, a hedonist living in pre-WW II Berlin who learns that he has retained his humanity despite the intolerance of his family and, at the last, the Nazis' unimaginable barbarism.

If Bent will never be as popular with audiences as the comedies of Neil Simon, for obvious reasons including but not limited to those mentioned above, it is beloved of actors, directors, and other theater practitioners. I've seen at least five productions in the New York area since the Broadway run ended. Because this is such a serious, challenging piece, it tends to be tackled only by extraordinarily talented people who really know what they're doing--in the same way, for example, that opera companies don't attempt Verdi's Otello or Wagner's Ring Cycle unless they have the resources to do so. Though the professional, semi-professional, and community theater stagings of Bent that I've seen had their individual strengths and weaknesses, each was excellent overall, and it's gratifying to report that The Flatiron Theater Company's recent production continued that tradition of quality.

Produced and directed by Michael Vincent Doane, this Bent has just completed its brief, 12-performance run (February 8-17) in a black box space on the third floor of a building at 119 West 23rd Street. Early indications on the night I attended were that the show might be a washout: Shockingly, the performance began not with the first scene between Max and his boyfriend Rudy, as written, but with three interpolated songs of the '30s, sung and danced by Victor LaMantia as Greta and two backup boys (one of whom was Jayd McCarty in the role of Rudy). To describe this little floorshow as misguided would be a huge understatement. Fortunately, I resisted the urge to bolt; when the play proper finally began, it soon became apparent that Sherman's work was in good hands.

Christopher Amitrano gave a powerful, committed, beautifully calibrated performance as Max, the selfish prick who turns out not to be a selfish prick at all. With his rather ethnic/urban/contemporary look and speech inflections, Amitrano was not ideally cast in the role, truth to tell. A further distraction was a large tattoo on his left arm that had to compete with the mock number tattoo he sported in the scenes set in Dachau. Still, the acting itself was so exemplary that Max emerged in all of his fascinating complexity.

Ed Swidey offered an equally rich portrait of Horst, the agent of Max's epiphany and redemption. Here, too, there were distractions; Swidey relied on facial and vocal tics so often that he sometimes seemed to be playing one of the inmates in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. But the essential honesty of the performance came shining through--and, really, who's to say that a concentration camp victim wouldn't develop some severe tics?

Bent requires supporting actors as talented as the leads, and this production was eminently worthy in that respect. First among equals was Jayd McCarty, so warm, funny, and vulnerable that Rudy's degradation and murder was utterly devastating. Richard V. Licata was superb as Max's well-meaning uncle Freddie; Neale Harper was appropriately despicable as an S.S. Captain; and David Shumbris was nearly perfect as Max's Nazi boy toy, Horst, complete with a skillful German accent. Lastly, Victor LaMantia was very good as the drag performer Greta in his pivotal scene, but one has to wonder why an attempt was made to throw the production to him by adding that dumb, mini-cabaret act at the top of the show. (What would Martin Sherman or his representatives have to say about this?)

Set designer Christie Phillips scored a real coup in the second act: Wire mesh was set up between the actors and the audience to represent the electrified fence that figures so importantly in the play's final moments, and the effect was chilling. Michael Piatkowski's costumes were fine overall, though Horst's concentration camp jacket strangely seemed to be missing its pink triangle (I couldn't see it, at any rate). Jeff McWay's sound design added to the atmosphere of the show but the volume levels of some of the cues were a little too high. And Michael Schloegel provided charming choreography for the three musical numbers that shouldn't have been there. Many thanks to The Flatiron Theater Company for a solid production of an underappreciated work of genius.

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