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.
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.
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