In "Summit Conference," the New Arts Theatre's second production, playwright Robert David MacDonald sets up a hypothetical meeting between Adolf Hitler's mistress Eva Braun and Benito Mussolini's "friend" Clara Petacci.
The two meet as colleagues in sin, as it were, both scarlet women whose men keep them like pampered poodles on very tight leashes. At first they exchange pleasantries and compare notes: "We both wanted men and we got institutions," says one. But as the evening wears on they take on the characteristics of their lovers, strutting and posturing as they argue war strategy and bicker over their alliance, the one spewing anti-Semitic cant, the other repulsive self-promotion.
Eventually the two women are submerged by the personalities of their dictators. In much the same way two brutal men might bully a defenseless woman, they humiliate a young soldier, stripping him to see if he is circumcised (a sign of being Jewish) and leaving him huddled pathetically with his pants around his ankles.
Yet for all the didactic exchanges, and Camilla David's crisp direction, one is left wondering what it all means. The sexual transpositions are perplexing. Are they women playing men? Are they men? Are they really attracted to each other or is their embrace the result of drunkenness and boredom? Yes, evil can be contagious -- but if Eva Braun spouting Hitlerism is meant to newly illuminate his character, the revelations escape me.
The time is 1941, when the Germans and Italians were sure they would triumph. Mussolini asks Hitler why he chose the Jews to eradicate. "They are a scapegoat," he says, explaining that without them the people might blame him for their woes. He advises Mussolini to "find a persecuted minority before Christmas at the latest."
Lora Tarantino is quite masterful as Eva Braun/Hitler, a role Glenda Jackson played in London. Stephanie Correa is the quintessential Italian as Clara Petacci, outgoing and voluble, pretty and fashionable where Braun is lumpy and frumpy. MacDonald, however, has not given them many levels to play on -- they are despotically mad, with fiendish goals, and whether they are women or men, whether they are drinking tea or guzzling liquor, they remain creatures of anger and hatred. We know little more about Braun or Petacci at the end than we did at the beginning, and what we have learned about their lovers is not terribly surprising.
Michael Russotto is surprisingly touching as the young Nazi who is perhaps a Jew -- another angle that MacDonald leaves dangling.
The New Arts Theatre is a fledgling group, but it has come up with a respectable and stylish set, all in somber black with touches of red. Home is the All Souls Unitarian Church's Pierce Hall, which is only moderately congenial for theater, given that the seats are on a flat floor, and thus the sight lines are tricky.
Summit Conference, by Robert David MacDonald, directed by Camilla David, with Michael Russotto, Lora Tarantino and Stephanie Correa. At the All Souls Unitarian Church through April 20.