Mystery and dignity were the two qualities that most marked the personality of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, née Lothar Berfelde, when I Am My Own Wife played D.C. four years ago. Jefferson Mays, who’d created the part of the German antiquarian off-Broadway, was still touring the Tony-winning solo show at that point, and the actor had spent a lot of time with the shy, sly heroine of Doug Wright’s play; “I’ve got nothing to prove here,” his precise but laid-back performance seemed to say, and that’s a big part of what kept the decidedly oddball show, with its eccentric narrative choices and its manifold quick changes, from running off the rails.
I mention this, without meaning to compare the specifics of one production to the other, to explain why it’s less than ideal that “quirky” and “technique” are the first words that come to mind in connection with the performance anchoring Signature Theatre’s new production. Andrew Long is an admirable actor, if perhaps not the first you’d think of for this part, but my notes from a night in the theater with his Charlotte are mostly about inflection and gesture and vocal modulation. Rare, I’m afraid, are observations about emotion or incident.
And so the central dilemma of I Am My Own Wife—a consciously metatheatrical piece in which the playwright himself meets his celebrity-transvestite subject, falls for her tales of struggle and survival under first the Nazis and then the repressive East German regime, then watches dismayed as the international media unearth evidence that some of her stories have a darker side—goes at least partly unengaged. If the audience is going to care about the creative paralysis that seized Wright when he learned that Charlotte may not have been the hero in history that she was in her stories—they’ll need to care a good deal about Charlotte herself. The curatorial impulse, as Wright-the-character explains, means thinking of the flaws in a clock or a cabinet as documentation of its history and resisting the urge to touch up the damage; the trouble here is that the flaws and the fascinations that make Charlotte von Mahlsdorf such a worthy subject are visible only behind a layer of actorly mechanics as dulling as a coat of paste wax.