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The Germans in Paris

Jonathan Leaf's play about Karl Marx, Heinrich Heine, and Richard Wagner has its basis in reality, but doesn't feel remotely real.

Jon Krupp and Angelica Torn in The Germans in Paris
(© Oncu Arslan)
Although it's the first thing you think when you see the title The Germans in Paris, Jonathan Leaf's new play at the Arclight Theatre, isn't about the Nazi occupation of France in the 1940s. Instead, Leaf is intrigued by another sort of German occupation: the long-term visits to Paris made in the 1840s by political thinker Karl Marx (Ross Beschler), the poet Heinrich "Harry" Heine (Jon Krupp), and composer Richard Wagner (Brian Wallace), all of whom were there for quite specific political and artistic reasons.

Leaf's play is based partially on real events, but little in it strikes me as remotely real. The narrative feels utterly contrived, a condition I attribute to Leaf's having become fascinated with a particular historical confluence and then being unable to stop himself from letting his mind entertain a series of what-ifs.

Among the Parisians with whom Leaf fantasizes the three ubiquitous focal characters hobnobbing is police inspector Burckhardt (David Lamberton), who's keeping an eye on Marx -- not because of his up-the-revolution rumblings, but because he's planning to fight a duel outlawed on French soil. So is Heine, a Jew who marries the Catholic Mathilde (Kathryn Elisabeth Lawson), and whom Leaf speculates may have contracted syphilis from his well-connected, married mistress, Madame Morisot (Angelica Torn), whom he dumps upon his marriage. That sacrifice has unfortunate consequences for Marx, because Morisot's sister, Madame Fenel (Claire Winters) has influence that she won't exercise on the authorities who've hauled Marx to jail and are planning to toss him across the border into Belgium.

Meanwhile, Heine ends up in a pistol duel with fellow Jew Solomon Strauss (Alexander Bilu) and the poet comes out of it with an irreversible limp that makes him look like Hugh Laurie as television's venom-spouting House. Marx's duel with August Willich (Bruce Barton) also materializes, although Marx himself doesn't. This makes Heine -- who has been informing all along on his pals to Burckhardt -- rethink his commitment to the Socialist beliefs Marx and Wagner promulgate.

Having let his mind run free, Leaf has trouble channeling it in the service of a script where the characters' motives make complete sense. Worse, they're inordinately hard to follow. I'll acknowledge that Leaf puts several genuinely witty lines in Heine's mouth; but it's something Leaf can't do with either the hotheaded Marx or the beret-wearing Wagner. The latter celeb does mention he writes "the music of the future," which is indeed one of Wagner's famous advertisements for himself. (Between the many scenes, an unbilled sound designer advertises Robert Schumann's Dichterliebe with Heine's text.)

What lends The Germans in Paris even passing interest is its ironically coincidental appearance with Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia at Lincoln Center. Indeed, Shipwreck, the second part of Stoppard's trilogy about pre-revolutionary thinkers and associates, could be called The Russians in Paris. Indeed, both Stoppard and Leaf meantion Michael Bakunin, but the well-known anarchist only appears in Stoppard's theatrical world.

Moreover, while striving to do their utmost for Leaf's script, the actors don't realize their often booming-decibel delivery (another similarity to The Coast of Utopia). Do they think they're shouting across the years from the 19th Century? Only thin-faced Jon Krupp, delivering Heine's clever phrases, gives a nicely modulated performance. Just about everyone else -- including Torn -- falls short of the mark or overreaches it. But let the consistency of the excesses be on director James Milton's head.