[Reviewer’s Note: Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife, which had its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons on May 28, 2003 after workshops at the La Jolla Playhouse and Chicago’s About Face Theatre, has transferred to Broadway’s Lyceum. The move represents faith in a quality theater piece on the part of the producers and it deserves to pay off, but whether this show will appeal to the tourist trade required for success on the Great White Way remains to be seen.
The production seems almost totally unchanged from its former incarnation. Jefferson Mays, playing 35 characters and most amazingly an East Berlin transvestite calling him/herself Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, gives as thrilling a performance as he did across town. The only noticeable difference is the stage itself: It’s higher than the Playwrights Horizons stage and has an elegant and intricate proscenium, sensitively lighted by the production’s David Lander, that resembles some of the carved furniture on stage in what is meant to be a museum devoted to objects from the German Gay ’90s. Since the Lyceum was built in 1903, Wright’s work now resonates with its surroundings, and that fact enriches its effectiveness; here’s a play about museum pieces ensconced in what is itself something of a museum piece — D.F.]
Doug Wright was first alerted to Charlotte von Mahlsdorf in 1990 by his friend John Marks, at the time the U.S. News and World Report bureau chief in Germany. Marks knew that his playwright pal liked mining other people’s stories for his work. The direct quote from Marks on the character he’d learned about after the Berlin wall fell: “She’s way up your alley.” Marks was right, and now we have the result of his heads-up. It’s I Am My Own Wife, subtitled “Studies for a Play About the Life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf,” and it’s also way up the alley of anyone interested in superlative theater.
You can forget about that “Studies for a Play” part, which Wright seems to have appended as a handy excuse for any flak he might take about his play being unfinished. He doesn’t need the out. Aside from a few adjustments he could make to the second of his two acts, he’s come up with an entirely enthralling play about the will to survive — and about how an imaginative author puts a scintillating play together. More than that, in perhaps the best work Playwrights Horizons has offered under artistic director Tim Sanford’s stewardship, Wright has been given a creative team — set designer Derek McLane, lighting designer David Lander, sound designers Andre J. Pluess and Ben Sussman, and costume designer Janice Pytel — operating at the top of its form. And he’s got a sympathetic director in Moisés Kaufman, his collaborator on this project, which has had workshops at the La Jolla Playhouse, the Sundance Theatre Laboratory, and Chicago’s About Face Theatre. Kaufman joined the project at Sundance; no doubt, he came on board at least in part because of his affinity for theater based on transcripts as evidenced Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and The Laramie Project.
Wright is additionally fortunate to have Jefferson Mays submerging himself body and spirit in Charlotte von Mahlsdorf and a couple dozen subsidiary characters. Switching from a couple of distinctive Teutonic accents to a variety of English and American accents, and offering different body languages as well, Mays gives an immaculate performance — by turns rebellious, touching, timid, assured, enigmatic. Early on during the show I attended, there was a flash in his eyes that made me note down the word “eyes.” Shortly thereafter, Wright — who has written himself into the play — observed of Charlotte, “She’s got piercing eyes, really smart eyes.” In other words, Mays gets it all in. (A theatergoer reports that, following one of the previews, the audience not only stood en masse but there were also cries of “Obie! Obie!”)
So, who is this Charlotte von Mahlsdorf that Mays impersonates so effectively? She was born Lothar Berfelde but during her adolescence decided, with the help of a lesbian aunt, that women’s clothes suited her better. Feminine in every aspect but her large hands, she became a furniture restorer and curator of what she called the
Gründerzeit Museum, an establishment dedicated to preserving artifacts from the German gay nineties. Living openly as a transvestite according to sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld in his book on the subject, Charlotte — somewhat like a European Quentin Crisp — refused to compromise her/himself under the Nazis during the war or under the Communist regime in East Berlin. She supported lesbian and gay causes right up to installing in her cellar the interior of a banned gay restaurant and bar.
At least, that’s the story as Charlotte frames it. There is actually some question as to her supposedly forthright behavior. Approached by officials from the feared East German security organization Stasi to act as an informer, Charlotte agreed to the demand made of her. She maintained, though, that her signature on the pertinent document meant nothing, that she continued to act as defiantly as she always had. But an associate of hers, Alfred Kirchner, with whom she dealt in black-market goods, was arrested and jailed. Officials claim she informed on Kirchner; Charlotte insists that he persuaded her to name him so that both of them wouldn’t go to prison.
Did she or didn’t she collaborate? Wright can’t be sure, as is allowed towards the end of I Am My Own Wife. (The title is the reply Lothar gave to his mother when she told him that dress-up was okay for a while but, at 40, he ought to think about marriage.) However, Wright also stresses that he wants to believe Charlotte, who died in 2002. And in making that statement, he reveals another of his fascinations: How to present the truth about the lives of others and make it stick. Although Wright mentions in a program note that he’s fiddled with the story somewhat, he seems to be putting no words in his protagonist’s mouth: What Mays as Charlotte speaks is taken entirely from transcripts. Relaying Charlotte’s courageous saga, Wright can be felt straining to believe in her bravado. (Those who loved Wright’s last play, the acclaimed Quills, will recall that its chief theme — as it took obvious liberties with the Maquis de Sade’s biography — was the passion to tell and hear stories.)
The quality of Wright’s piece is matched by Derek McLane’s set, which initially appears to be simple but, like the play, slowly unfolds its complexities. Prominent are a wall with period-blue wallpaper, a few faux-Jacobean chairs, and a stand on which an Edison phonograph is placed. Behind the wall and only vaguely apparent at first is a high grid containing credenzas, lamps, clocks, and even more gramophones. As the play negotiates its many grooves like a sapphire needle on a 78, David Lander occasionally lets light flow through the wall to focus this way and that on eye-catching groups of objects.
Throughout, music is heard. At one point, the sound designers float in a few bars of Jerome Kern’s “Make Believe” as, possibly, a subliminal comment about Charlotte’s veracity. (Note to collectors of theater trivia: “Make Believe” is also heard in the magic-realist “Old Saybrook” act of Woody Allen’s Writer’s Block.)
Because Wright regularly appropriates others’ biographies for his idiosyncratic dramaturgical purposes, he could be considered a plunderer. But while rooting around in histories that have caught his attention, he seems the furthest thing from reckless or opportunistic. As to Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, he is loving in his treatment. In her black dress with its front pleat, wimple-like black kerchief, black stockings, and heavy black boots (all rounded up by Janice Pytel), Charlotte shows Gründerzeit Museum visitors her collection. When Wright later asks whether she strips wood or replaces the veneer if an object loses its luster, Charlotte replies that she doesn’t refinish the pieces: “Nicks and cuts. Stains. Cracks. A missing balustrade. A broken spindle. These things, they are proof of its history. And so you must leave it.”
Of course, she’s also talking about herself. The author seems intent on following her lead and agreeing with her when she adds, “It is a record, yes? Of living. Of lives.” In I Am My Own Wife, Doug Wright has produced his own amazing record of an amazing life.