Theater

'Silent Partners': Brecht the Diabolical

Ian Armstrong as Brecht's longtime translator Eric Bentley in the Scena Theatre production.
Ian Armstrong as Brecht's longtime translator Eric Bentley in the Scena Theatre production. (By Ray Gniewek)
By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, April 24, 2006

In Charles Marowitz's "Silent Partners," the great playwright Bertolt Brecht is depicted as the Devil himself. He seduces and manipulates, and if anyone complains -- as Eric Bentley, his longtime English translator and critical champion, frequently does -- Brecht points out that all he does is tempt. The sin of capitulation flourishes around him, with guilt saturating his wife, his mistresses, even Bentley.

The program for this often entertaining world premiere by Scena Theatre credits the script as being "freely adapted from Eric Bentley's 'The Brecht Memoir,' " and it's not clear whether the theatrical inflation in this titanic playwright-critic relationship comes from Bentley or Marowitz. It's awfully funny, though, to watch Barry Dennen's gently insinuating Brecht coo offers to Ian Armstrong's suddenly apprehensive Bentley. As Armstrong listens to promises that ripple with professional esteem and faint eroticism, his laughably paralyzed dread is like something pilfered from "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari."

Not that anything or anyone else goes as far over the top, even when Bentley, in one of his frequent fantasies about the essence of the relationship, imagines himself and his nemesis dueling it out in the opera "Faust." Although Marowitz's production at the Warehouse Theater unfolds with lean comic precision, anchored by Armstrong's puckish narration as Bentley, the show is searching for a consistent sense of rhythm and style.

The play's essential bargain, as Dennen's Brecht puts it in a thick German accent, is "you scratch up my back, and I'll scratch up yours." It's Brecht's standard deal. His wife, Helene Weigel, played with a single but effective note of grumpiness by Charlotte Akin, lives with it. So does Ruth Berlau, one of Brecht's chief mistresses, muses and uncredited collaborators. The three of them lived together for a period, and when the two women pass each other on Richard Montgomery's soft gray box of a set, it's like watching rivals crossing paths on the field.

As Berlau, Caroline Strong is a wonderfully steely presence, nimbly combining wit and revolutionary rigidity. When Berlau does Brecht's bidding and tries to compel the genial, vaguely liberal Bentley to toe the Marxist line, Strong becomes an ideological bulldozer. The brusque force of Berlau's dialogue -- and Strong's command of it -- squares with the evolved view of Berlau as, on many levels, Brecht's unheralded equal.

It's peculiar, though, that it's Berlau who has the sharpest arc in the story. The historical timeline dictates that she almost immediately gets shunted aside and dives into her breakdown, but the scene is long and sluggishly staged. At times like these -- as well as during the belabored climax, plus whenever Brecht lapses into a tiptoe stalking mode that verges on sleepwalking -- it seems Marowitz might not be the ideal director (or dramaturge) for shepherding this script to the stage.

At its best, though, the show moves sleekly as Marowitz depicts his theatrical legends without sliding too far into the inside-baseball realm. Brecht's testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee is a quirky highlight -- "Yes. That is, no," he testifies -- and the Brecht-Bentley yoke of intellectual parrying and emotional deflection is a genuine curiosity. "Subtext is our native language," Bentley muses, a notion that Marowitz milks equally for laughs and moral judgment.

Armstrong is a steady centerpiece; in oversize glasses and a conservative suit, he looks and acts like a bright twit on the cusp of tenure. It's a bit surprising to see Bentley, one of the 20th century's most rigorous critics, rendered in relatively two-dimensional terms. But that's what Marowitz draws: a droll, essentially straight-shooting foil for Brecht's ethical shenanigans, and Armstrong's light, witty attack works.

Dennen makes a wily Brecht, chomping a cigar and frumping around in a proletarian cap and leather coat (Alisa Mandel's costumes are spot-on). His approach to the character is sensibly grounded in sly arrogance, but Dennen fumbles and pauses too much to be thoroughly commanding. So, it turns out, does the odd but promising show, which enterprisingly molds the ultimately ignoble elasticity of two bright minds into a highbrow showbiz caprice.

Silent Partners, written and directed by Charles Marowitz. Lighting design, Marianne Meadows. With Michael Miyazaki, James R. Raby, Michael Tolaydo and John Tweel. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through May 21 at the Warehouse Theater, 1021 Seventh St. NW. Call 703-684-7990 or visit http://www.scenatheatre.org .


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