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Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night

The literary iconoclast’s 1962 meta-fiction novel about an American-born Nazi propagandist on trial in Israel for war crimes is brought to the stage.

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Gabriel Grilli and Trish Lindstrom in a scene from “Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Darryl Reilly

Darryl Reilly, Critic

Alternating between intriguing and ponderous, this stage adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut Jr’s quintessentially wild 1962 meta-fiction novel is entitled Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night. The title is a reference to Goethe’s Faust and the absurdist Chinese box plot is set amidst Mr. Vonnegut’s oft-used terrain of W.W. II. Joseph Goebbels and Adolph Eichmann make appearances.

It’s 1961 and Howard W. Campbell Jr. is writing his memoirs while in a Jerusalem jail awaiting trial for war crimes. Born in Schenectady, New York, in 1912, he was brought to Germany as a child by his parents in 1923. Politically indifferent, after achieving celebrity as a playwright and literary figure and having married a leading German actress, he became a renowned radio broadcaster espousing Nazi propaganda.

Just before W.W. II begins he is recruited by a U.S. War Department official to become a double agent, intertwining coded messages into his commentaries. President Franklin Roosevelt was aware of this and enjoyed listening to him. He, William J. Donovan and the agent who lured him into this work are the only people who were aware of his espionage. To the world he is a notorious Nazi rather than an asset of the Allies. White supremacists revere him.

After the war, he sneaks into the U.S. and takes up residence in Greenwich Village.  There he in lives in obscurity and befriends a cranky old artist who turns out to be a Russian spy. After a number of plot twists, he winds up in Israeli captivity where he converses with loquacious Holocaust survivor guards.

Gabriel Grilli in a scene from “Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

There was a 1996 film version of the book directed by Keith Gordon, written by Robert B. Weide and starring Nick Nolte as Campbell that didn’t make much of a mark with critics or audiences.

Presented by the San Francisco-based The Custom Made Theatre Company, this production is masterminded by its artistic director Brian Katz who adapted and directed it. Mr. Katz’s accomplished script tackles the difficult source material that’s structured as narrated flashbacks with overall successfully. Katz’s staging while working on a small-scale is technically resourceful but with limited theatricality. Sluggishness pervades and most crucially the show falters with its performances.

Gabriel Grilli is a personable and talented actor and delivers a solid performance. However, the mellow Mr. Grilli lacks the charisma to make Howard W. Campbell the riveting centerpiece that this full-length play requires.

The company of Andrea Gallo, Trish Lindstrom, Matthew Van Oss, Eric Rice, Dave Sikula and Dared Wright all have their high points as a variety of zany characters but are saddled with two-dimensional roles and so they make little impact despite their strong efforts.

Dared Wright, Gabriel Grilli, Eric Rice, Trish Lindstrom and Andrea Gallo in a scene from “Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Scenic designer Daniel Bilodeau’s assembly of jagged wooden slats, wooden benches and a vintage desk on a platform makes for an efficiently abstract environment. Adam Gearhart’s lighting design is more standard than inspired. Composer Julian Evans’ original music suitably accompanies the actions and scene transitions while his sound design renders it and the effects with skill.  The relatively drab costume design by Zoë Allen adequately realizes the characters.

Crammed with incidents and characters and merrily imparting Vonnegut’s distinctive sensibility, this incarnation of Mother Night is worthy but underwhelming.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night (through November 3, 2018)

The Custom Made Theatre Company

59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59e59.org

Running time: two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission

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Darryl Reilly
About Darryl Reilly (549 Articles)
A native New Yorker, Darryl Reilly graduated from NYU with a BFA in Cinema Studies. For the Broadway League, (formerly The League of American Theatres and Producers) he developed, and for five years conducted their Broadway Open House Tours, which took visitors through The Theatre District and into several Broadway theaters. He contributed to Broadway Musicals Show by Show: Sixth Edition (Applause Books). Since 2013, he has reviewed theater, cabaret, and concerts for Theaterscene.net.

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