"I Am My Own Wife" arrives in Washington like a visiting dignitary -- polished, serene, impeccably credentialed.
A one-man show based on the life of an East German transvestite who survived the Nazis and the Communists, it carries the double-special-important validation of both the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award.
Jefferson Mays stars as the transvestite protagonist of "I Am My Own Wife."
It also features Jefferson Mays, an actor so painstakingly protean that he finds astonishing variety even in the German-inflected English of the myriad characters he plays.
As with any celebrated guest, one feels almost honor-bound to applaud his achievement, and indeed, the subject matter of "I Am My Own Wife" invites a kind of reverence. Its enigmatic central character, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (nee Lothar Berfelde), is engaged in a kind of passive heroism, stubbornly clinging in perilous times to life as an improvised woman, a choice that easily could have gotten her imprisoned or killed.
Topic, offbeat. Actor, technically nonpareil. Yet Doug Wright's play, which opened at the National Theatre on Tuesday for a two-week run, also casts a bit of a chill. While it's skillful and admirable and all those words we throw at art that's good for you, it leaves a peculiar aftertaste. Charlotte/Lothar was a real person -- "the most eccentric character the Cold War ever birthed," in the playwright's words -- but the decision to render her/him with journalistic rigor takes a toll. There's a stillness to the storytelling that places the piece more in the category of overly detailed portraiture than drama.
It's an extreme rarity these days for a serious play to go on a national tour of the sort "I Am My Own Wife" is undertaking. Certainly, the underused National could be a more vigorous destination for superior theater. If you, too, are of this mind, then take a chance on "Wife." You may find the experience more powerful than I. On the two occasions I've seen it, I've been both impressed and unmoved.
The play, immaculately staged by Moises Kaufman, is a story within a story. The author makes himself a character in the piece; among the many people Mays portrays is one named Doug Wright, who is our surrogate.
His struggle to make sense of Charlotte mirrors ours. Wright's calculation may have been that because Charlotte presents such an obstinately stony facade -- and the stoicism was doubtless a necessary barricade against a world that deemed him a degenerate -- an audience needs a more emotionally accessible intermediary.
Wright, who began a series of interviews with the elderly Charlotte in 1993, after the Berlin Wall had fallen, clearly feels a kinship. "I grew up gay in the Bible Belt," Mays-as-Wright reports. "I can only imagine what it was like in the Third Reich."
His empathy is both useful and a hindrance. There's an awestruck quality to the stylish writing, but the justification for the awe is more in what we're told than what we are shown. The author never fully pierces Charlotte's intricate web.
Charlotte, who died a few years ago, was an inveterate collector of society's elegant detritus, the gramophones and inkwells and credenzas of bygone eras. "I Am My Own Wife" spends a lot of time exploring Charlotte's obsession with the objects, and in the end presents her as another of them. She is revealed as only slightly less stolid than the antiques stacked to the ceiling of Derek McLane's superb set.
The liveliest aspect of the play is the riddle of Charlotte's past. As a teenager, he took a blunt object and beat his abusive father to death. In his old age, the German press dug out other dark details, principally an allegation that Charlotte had been an informer for the Stasi, the East German secret police, and responsible for the imprisonment of a man with whom she may have been in love. In his scrupulously measured fashion, Wright offers both damning and exculpatory evidence. The play is as ambiguous as Charlotte himself.
If there's not quite enough meat here for a two-hour sit, Mays -- who originated the role off-Broadway and won a Tony after the play moved to Broadway -- makes a lot of it palatable. The feat is one of astounding discipline. Outfitted in a black peasant dress and strand of pearls, a black bandanna covering his head, Mays looks comically unfeminine. And still, somehow, the portrayal ingeniously straddles the gender divide. A modern audience accepts Mays just as Charlotte would have wanted.
Thanks to Mays's uncanny ear, the dozens of other characters emerge in distinct voices, from an American friend speaking a brand of German honed closer to the Mississippi than the Rhine to a gaggle of reporters peppering Charlotte with intrusive questions in the accents of Tokyo and Paris. David Lander's lighting is another asset, isolating in shafts of brilliant white moments such as the recounting of the father's bludgeoning.
The sum of these effects, though, does not engender the kind of holy communion that Wright's buildup leads you to expect. The curious creature he finds so irresistible is, from other perspectives, easy to resist.
I Am My Own Wife, by Doug Wright. Directed by Moises Kaufman. Costumes, Janice Pytel; sound, Andre J. Pluess and Josh Bender Dubiel. Approximately 1 hour 50 minutes. Through April 10 at the National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Call 800-447-7400 or visit www.telecharge.com.