Review: This Beautiful Future Asks Us to Empathize with a Young Nazi in Love
Rita Kalnejais's play makes a return engagement off-Broadway.
What are the limits of empathy in the theater? Rita Kalnejais dances precariously close to the edge in This Beautiful Future, a love story about a young Nazi and his French paramour, now making a return engagement with OHenry Productions at the Cherry Lane Theater after its New York debut earlier this year at TheaterLab (the play originated in London in 2017). This dramatic jitterbug on the side of a cliff is what makes This Beautiful Future extraordinary, even if the love story at its center feels uncomfortably familiar.
Kalnejais may have been inspired by La Tondue de Chartres, a famous photo of a French woman whose head has been publicly shaved as a way to shame her for horizontal collaboration with the Nazis. This was a widespread occurrence in liberated France and is soon to be the fate of Elodie (Francesca Carpanini), a 17-year-old French girl in the throes of her first love. Unfortunately for her, it happens to be with a German soldier named Otto (Uly Schlesinger), and the Allies have just landed at Normandy.
Elodie plans a rendezvous with Otto in a house formerly occupied by the Levis, a Jewish family that was deported from Chartres (to where is left up to the viewer's imagination). Poor dim Otto thinks that he's about to join an expedition to invade Britain, and it's up to Elodie to break the bad (good) news.
Admirably, Kalnejais doesn't take the easy road by making Otto an apolitical conscript. He's a true believer, and his description of the surge of emotion he experienced seeing Hitler speak provides the basis for Schlesinger's most haunting performance: "It's like he's saying what you haven't even let yourself admit but you're like Thank you," he explains, sounding very much like a Proud Boy at a Trump rally. But does that mean we must discount his humanity? Can we understand that this lost 16-year-old boy is looking for direction, and in the absence of a compelling narrative from the dominant culture, has been drawn into a cult run by a daddy figure with a stupid haircut? Can we at least acknowledge that this is a tragedy that repeats itself throughout history?
Carpanini's performance as Elodie captures the timelessness of their situation. Her giddiness at experiencing first love is no less palpable than that of Juliet or Maria. Gingerly she ignores Otto's troubling politics, careful not to disturb her perfect (and perfectly impossible) vision of their beautiful future together. Anyone who has ever fallen in love (which is most people) will feel a twinge of recognition. I asked myself, if I had been born in a different time and place, might I have made the same mistake? And the honest answer is an unsettling yes.
Underlining the element of hindsight in this tale, two older actors (Angelina Fiordellisi and Austin Pendleton) observe the action from a glass window upstage, occasionally speaking their regrets and singing karaoke into microphones. "Boom! Why does my heart go boom," they chirp the opening lines of a cheery Jack Hylton number as an air raid takes place outside. The observers look on wistfully as Otto and Elodie frolic in their love nest. A later audience sing-along to Adele's "Someone Like You" offers a cloying reminder that these feelings are universal and have been reflected in popular music through the ages.
Director Jack Serio does a fine job of integrating these two planes of existence, making Otto and Elodie seem totally alone even as they are observed. Frank J. Oliva's set is a womb crafted out of pink insulation and intimately lit by Stacey Derosier. The only signs of the outside world come in the form of frighteningly real explosions (created by Derosier and sound designer Christopher Darbassie). Ricky Reynoso's washed-out costumes (and especially Otto's pajama-like underwear) convey a sepia tone memory of a secret slumber party: These young lovers are not really kids anymore, but they're not quite adults either.
Sometimes the playwright gets in her own way: Kalnejais's insistence on having her characters speak like middle-class millennials ("They're so fucking random about everything," Otto kvetches about the RAF) seems like a further effort to make her characters relatable, and it's an unnecessarily distracting one. Also, a plot point that sees Elodie and Otto adopting an orphaned egg and caring for it until it hatches feels like a contrivance too far — a heavy-handed metaphor for fragile love in a hopeless place (queue it up on the karaoke machine).
But only the most determined will walk away from This Beautiful Future having felt nothing. Human emotions are timeless, and they have been manipulated throughout history by both artists and politicians. Personally, I'll take the former over the latter any day.