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The Winning Side

Despite non-traditional casting and a non-linear structure, a fascinating account of rocket scientist Wernher von Braun who defected from the Nazis to work for NASA.

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Devin E. Haqq, Sullivan Jones and Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr. in a scene from “The Winning Side” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Not as famous today as he once was, scientist Wernher von Braun was in earlier decades one of the most famous men in the world, but also one of its biggest enigmas. Although he was the father of America’s Apollo project that put the first man on the moon, he had been a German Nazi who developed the V2 rocket for Hitler during W.W. II that killed thousands of British and French civilians. In James Wallert’s fascinating but frustrating new play, The Winning Side, having its world premiere at the Arcon Theatre at Theatre Row, he has von Braun insist he was not political but only acted expediently. How else could he have gone on working in science in his homeland of Germany had he not joined the Nazi party, his life’s ambition being the conquest of outer space? The play mixes science and politics, technology and ethics, questions that we are now coming to take seriously.

The playwright has made two problematic choices in writing The Winning Side. The play’s non-linear time sequence is quite challenging. Beginning and ending with the Apollo 11 moon launch on July 16, 1969, the play alternates between scenes of von Braun’s time in Paris moving forward from 1943 to 1945 and scenes that move backward from America in 1969 to Europe in 1945. Despite Sho Hanafusa’s animated timeline which always shows us what year we are in and what year we are traveling to between the scenes, this forwards and backwards structure is quite difficult to keep straight through much of the play, particularly as von Braun will say one thing and then we find out in another scene that he has lied or not told the complete truth. It becomes a giant puzzle to figure which came first.

According to the script’s note on casting, the author states “It is important to me that the actors cast in The Winning Side reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the community in which the play is being presented. Historical look-alikes are neither required nor desired.” Accordingly director Ron Russell has cast all three men in the play with African-American actors. This does not take into consideration that we have seen pictures of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, as well as Walt Disney and Neil Armstrong. Some of the audience may have seen photos of the German born von Braun or the film of his life story, I Am at the Stars.

Sullivan Jones as Wernher von Braun in a scene from “The Winning Side” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

One can suspend one’s disbelief but with historical characters who have had real identities in modern times it does take a while to get used to the device. Here it seems more of a stunt to make all of the male characters Black than warranted by the material. So too the choice of accents: although the French characters generally have excellent French accents, the actor playing von Braun has only a very slight German accent that comes and goes which is distracting. All or none might have been a better choice.

Nevertheless, the play is a fascinating investigation into a very complex and complicated man, one who was also a mathematical genius. Described by the script as impossibly good-looking and charming, Sullivan Jones as von Braun is both these things, along with playing him as being arrogant, elitist, artistic and single-minded. We first see von Braun in Paris going backstage at a cabaret to visit an actress he admires, Margot Moreau, a fictionalized portrait of a woman that he actually had an affair with during 1943 – 1945 while he was running the German Army Rocket Center in Peenemünde and overseeing rocket sites in France.

As portrayed by Melissa Friedman, Margot is a temperamental and tempestuous actress/singer, moral to her very core, who has ethical problems becoming involved with the charming German in Paris during W.W. II. Although he tells her that he is only an engineer, she is shocked to discover first that he is a member of the Nazi Party and later that he owns an SS uniform. She also becomes aware of the thousands who died in slave labor making his rockets possible, but von Braun declares he never saw any proof of this. He tells her he plans to marry her but does not act on the proposal. We also see her in a Paris production of “Antigone,” which reinforces the themes of moral responsibility and integrity.

Melissa Friedman and Sullivan Jones in a scene from “The Winning Side” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

The second strand of the play mainly set in America dramatizes von Braun’s interactions with Major Taggert (a fine confident Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr.), a composite of several men that he had to deal with in the course of his work in the U.S. space program with a compromised security status and the problems over his former Nazi status in Germany.

We also see him in contact with Walt Disney who featured him in a record-breaking television show, Man in Space, and film director J. Lee Thompson who in 1960 filmed his life story, I Aim at the Stars. A meeting in 1961 with plain spoken Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson after the Soviets beat the U.S. into putting the first man in space is quite funny. Devin E. Haqq shows his versatility playing Disney, Thompson, Johnson, Kennedy, Armstrong and ten other characters. His lack of accents notwithstanding, he does differentiate these men extremely well.

Ron Russell’s direction is both assured and astute bringing out three-dimensional characterizations for these mainly historic figures. Chika Shimizu’s unit setting with its metal scaffolding on either end of the wide Acorn Theatre stage is both unattractive and distracting as the scaffolds are hardly used and are always part of yet another location. Her projections are fine as far as they go but more of them might have helped in creating the atmosphere. Betsy Rugg-Hinds’ minimal costume changes for all but Ms. Friedman works pretty well, with Haqq wearing slight additions for some of his characters. Director Russell’s work as sound designer includes period songs between the scenes that clue us into the many time periods that are called for by the playwright. Tom Lehrer’s devastatingly satirical song, “Wernher von Braun,” is put to good use as the opening of the second act.

In dramatizing the story of Wernher von Braun, James Wallert’s The Winning Side makes compelling the concept of ethics in science: should we admire a mathematical genius who has had antithetical political ideas or are his scientific achievements too valuable to hold his former political beliefs against him? Though the program notes indicate that the play “is a work of dramatic fiction and liberties have been taken,” The Winning Side does show us a genius at work who was also an opportunist and changed his stories depending on what suited the occasion. As such it has become relevant all over again in an era when truth counts for so little and men of morality are all the more valuable.

The Winning Side (extended through November 4, 2018)

Epic Theatre Ensemble

Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit http://www.epictheatreensemble.org

Running time: two hours and ten minutes with one intermission

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Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (545 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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