Australian playwright (currently based in London) Rita Kalnejais’ New York debut, This Beautiful Future, is an ambitious play. In it she attempts to mix past and present, as well as show a future 80 years later. She has said that she wanted to write a play about “hope and the possibility of connection.” Unfortunately, her play has many unexplained holes that will leave you scratching your head. This production previously appeared at the TheaterLab in January and the current Cherry Lane Theatre revival has all the same actors and staff except for Uly Schlesinger who replaces Justin Mark in the role of Otto.
This Beautiful Future takes place in Chartres, France in August 1944. Elodie, a French girl aged 17, and Otto, a 16-year-old Nazi soldier meet at the now vacant home of one of her friends. They have fallen in love and want to spend the night together. However, the play also has two other characters called Austin and Angelina (and played Austin Pendleton and Angelina Fiordellisi) who appear in a karaoke booth behind the set and periodically sing love songs from the pre-World II era and then later songs from our time (i.e. Fleetwood Mac, Adele.) While there is no explanation of Austin and Angelina’s appearance, we conclude that they represent the life that Otto and Elodie might have had if the war had not interrupted their growing up.
Elodie and Otto are typical youth talking about friends, memories, experiences, family, hopes and dreams. Living near the woods they speak of nature. However, occasionally bombing can be heard nearby and Otto insists they keep the curtains closed so that no light shows through. They do manage to keep the war out for most of the play until almost the very end.
Francesca Carpinini and Uly Schlesinger are sweet as the two young lovers and are very believable as adolescents on the verge of adulthood. However, there are many things the author does not explain. As Elodie is French and Otto is German, what language are they communicating in as it is unlikely each knows the other’s language? Elodie is so naïve as to the state of the war that she does not realize that her Jewish neighbors who have been rounded up are not coming back, nor is her father and brother who have been taken away by the Nazis. She does not understand when Otto tells her that he is on a firing squad and had killed 34 men that very day as the Germans are emptying the jails before they leave. She only seems a little concerned when one of them turns out to be her high school French teacher.
He, on the other hand, describes his admiration for Hitler and the world after the war where he says everyone will be “clean” and it will be “one race of people who believe the same thing.” He thinks that his platoon is leaving for England and then United States. Not having heard the radio, he does not know that the Allies have freed Paris and the Nazis are already in retreat. How both Elodie and Otto can be that naïve at the end of World War II remains a mystery. While we know that the Nazis had brainwashed their soldiers to think they were in the right does not come as a surprise. However that Elodie expresses little concern that her neighbors are being shot is very disturbing. The title of the play is extremely ironic as neither realizes the consequences of their actions or the tragic future that awaits them.
Pendleton and Fiordellisi are both senior citizens and past their prime as singers. However, they are charming as they represent the mythical beautiful future and speak of things they would do differently if they had the chance. Their concern for Otto and Elodie is touching as they watch them though their glass booth with intense interest. Aside from their karaoke songs which punctuate the action, the play moves backwards and forwards in time, going back to the couple first met at the lake, continuing ahead to the future after they go their separate ways, and finally back to their last peaceful morning together.
While Jack Serio’s direction is assured and polished, he cannot get around the basic problem with the play that Elodie is a collaborator and the Otto is a bloodthirsty soldier just carrying out orders. The set by Frank J. Oliva is rather quaint for a 1944 French farm house setting, placing the couple in an all pink bedroom while the karaoke booth changes from pink to blue and back again (as does the bedroom) in Stacey Derosier’s equally coy lighting design. It almost suggests an old fashioned children’s bedroom, pink for girls, blue for boys. The costumes by Ricky Reynoso are unassuming and historically accurate for the two time periods, 1944 and today.
If you like your W.W. II history unadulterated, you may object to a love story between a French teenage girl and a Nazi soldier even if they are inexperienced and innocent and unaware of what is to come. The fact that they are both hopeful of life in the future in the middle of war and devastation notwithstanding, were people ever this naïve and unworldly? While This Beautiful Future is tastefully presented, it does not deal with the moral issues that the play hints at but refuses to recognize.
This Beautiful Future (through October 30, 2022)
Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, west of Seventh Avenue South, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.thisbeautifulfuture.com
Running time: 85 minutes without an intermission