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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review

" We're not allowed to be fluffs anymore."—Uncle Freddie
Patrick Heusinger, Charlie Hofheimer. (Photo: Craig Schwartz)
Max is a gift from the gods and doesn't he just know it. That physical beauty, that careless diffidence, the "I don't have an answer, but things will work out because I'm me" bravado. The tousled hair, the shrugging off a night of debauchery after learning how much of a drunken ass he has been. Beauty and privilege clearly carry some coin, even when you're a gay man in 1934 Berlin and the Nazis are starting to sharpen their knives. Or so Max believes. Because he's Max.

We watch Patrick Heusinger, as Max, glide through the opening scenes of Martin Sherman's Bent at the Mark Taper Forum and we know the man is destined to get pole-axed. When we return from intermission for the play's second act, the site of the transformed Max, his head shorn, his beautiful frame stashed away in striped prison pajamas, is remarkable. The man who earned his living "making deals" now stays alive in a concentration camp by transporting a pile of rocks from one end of a quarry to the other, and back again. The striped pajamas have a gold Star of David on them, not a pink triangle, identifying Max as a Jew rather than as a homosexual. To Max, this is status upgrade, a sign that he still knows how to deal.

The Taper revival, directed with razor blade intensity by Moises Kaufman, is a four- alarm gut check for a viewer's head and stomach alike. When we are not witnessing acts of human degradation at their most vile, we are hearing of events that are, if possible, even worse than what we have been shown. But wouldn't you know it. . .amidst the filth and despair, there is the tiniest flicker of hope as Max, who spends the play caring only for himself, discovers he can and does love another human being.

Kaufman's production is unsparingly brutal, but the director clearly wants us keying in to the tender scenes between first Max and his dancer lover Rudy (played by Andy Mientus) and later between Max and fellow Dachau prisoner, Horst (Charlie Hofheimer). There is a nice bit of counterpoint between Max's life pre-Dachau (he and Rudy are forced to flee Berlin and are later rounded up) and in the camp itself. And indeed, where the first half of Bent contains dashes of humor, intrigue and domesticity, the production's second half is positively Beckettian with a double helping of bleakness.

We meet Max in his flat, trying to ward off a humdinger of a hangover. Rudy, who is accustomed to Max's routines, makes him coffee and explains the presence of the naked stranger who bids the two of them good morning. He is Wolf (Tom Berklund), a Nazi officer, and, consequently, a very unwise person to have brought home for a tryst. The year is 1934, and in the aftermath of the Night of the Long Knives, Hitler is sweeping up and exterminating Sturmabteilung corps and homosexuals to consolidate his power. Rudy and Max book it, first for Rudy's club where they get some practical advice from drag headliner Greta (Jake Shears, a torchy delight) and later to a tent community in the forest on the outskirts of the city. Max has wealthy relatives who secure him papers to get to Amsterdam, but Max won't leave the country without Rudy, and the two are apprehended. On the train to Dachau, everything quickly goes sideways. Max's connections and his ability to deal may keep him alive, but at a terrible price.

For the second act, the long dock-like platform that is the centerpiece of Beowulf Boritt's set is raised vertically to become a camp watch tower and the Taper stage is all but bare. Max and fellow prisoner Horst play out what is left of their lives, falling in love while toting piles of rocks under a blistering sun, never touching, and barely even permitted to look at each other. These scenes — which include Max and Horst making love without touching — are shot through with a disturbing intimacy that Kaufman and his two actors have clearly worked assiduously to build and maintain.

When their world is breached by a visit from Hugo Armstrong's officious Nazi Captain, we are finally headed toward catharsis. Because in addition to being a love story, Bent represents Max's journey toward a self-awareness and self-acceptance, a journey that is as relevant in 2015 as it was in 1979 when the play was first produced. The observations and influence of Rudy, Greta, of Max's Uncle Freddie (Ray Baker) and certainly of Horst are guiding Max to his final decision and when Heusinger arrives at that decision, we are prepared for it. As enacted by Hofheimer, Horst is proud, principled, uncompromising — everything that Max is not. Yet he cannot help falling desperately in love (Max has that effect on people). Heusinger and Hofheimer craft this budding relationship with great delicacy, tenderness and the urgency that comes with the knowledge that one or both men are likely doomed. In the desperation of their words, we accept that their love for each other is probably the only thing keeping them alive.

That a major revival of this game-changer of a play should be produced shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court legitimizes same-sex marriage feels like kismet and Kaufman, the quite-talented creator of Gross Indecency and The Laramie Project is clearly the perfect captain. Covering a less well-known element of the Holocaust, Bent draws its strength from its value of a human connection under unspeakable circumstances no matter what form it may take. Its methods and messages will not be to everyone's taste, but the production should be on every theater-goer's "must-see" list nonetheless.
Bent by Martin Sherman
Directed by Moises Kaufman
Cast: Hugo Armstrong, Ray Baker, Tom Berklund, Matthew Carlson, Brionne Davis, Wyatt Fenner, Patrick Heusinger, Charlie Hofheimer, Andy Mientus, Jake Shears, Brian Slaten, Jonatahn B. Wright
Scenic and Costume Design: Beowulf Boritt
Lighting Design: Justin Townsend
Sound Design: Cricket S. Myers
Wig and Hair Design: Carol F. Doran
Fight Director: Steve Rankin
Choreographer Ken Roht
Casting: Heidi Levitt, CSA
Production Stage Manager: David S. Franklin
Plays through August 23, 2015 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles (213) 628-2772,
Running time: Two hour and 30 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.
Reviewed by Evan Henerson
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