As much as I wanted to love Bent, as much as I wanted to be deeply moved by it, to find its story of gay love in the Holocaust uplifting and inspiring, Meta.for Theatre’s production only did it for me occasionally. It has its moments of real terror and one marvelous scene of transcendence. But the play feels dated and Amanda Lockitch’s production only erratically rises to the levels of intensity necessary to sustain its power.
Not that a play about the Holocaust and the persecution of gay men for their sexual orientation is no longer relevant. Au contraire. But Martin Sherman’s 1979 script, one of the pioneering works of American gay theatre, spends a good deal of its overly long and overwritten opening act waving the flags of effeminacy, male nudity, cross-dressing, and male on male sex as if to say to the audience, “we’re here and we’re queer and you Nazis aren’t going to stop us.” But almost 40 years later there’s very little here that seems new, much less shocking.
What does work is the growing terror of the gay men beginning to realize that Germany in 1934 is no longer safe for them, that they can be killed for who they are and what they do. The most effective scene of the first act is the advice closeted Uncle Freddie (Sean Allan) gives to Max (Sean Cummings), that “fluffs” like them need to be discreet and do it on the side. There’s also a chilling moment when Rudy (Joshua Lewis), beaten to death on the train to Dachau, rises from the dead and sings “Streets of Berlin.” But it’s the theatricality of that moment that makes it work. The uneven performances in the terrible scene leading to his death mitigate its horror.
The second act is better as Max and Horst (Thrasso Petras) develop their relationship in the concentration camp while absurdly moving rocks from one pile to another. The scene in which they stand side by side, staring straight ahead under the eyes of the Nazi guards, and bring themselves to orgasm simply by speaking to each other is marvelously performed and elegantly directed. Max’s insistence that he’s unworthy and incapable of love is also moving. But the ending turns melodramatic and the gay pride finale feels anticlimactic.
I think that a fully successful revival of this play today would require extremely strong actors and a less literally naturalistic treatment, one that gave us more moments of dead men singing.