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By Charles Marowitz, adapted from Eric Bentley’s The Brecht Memoirs
Directed by Charles Marowitz
Produced by Scena Theatre
At the Warehouse Theater to May 21
Charles Marowitz asks two provocative questions in Silent Partners, his world premiere based on the collaboration between critic Eric Bentley and playwright Bertolt Brecht. The first is, “What ideal is worth devoting one’s life to?” Himself an aspiring playwright, Bentley (Ian Armstrong) was wondering just that in 1942 when he met expatriate Brecht (Barry Dennen), who was searching for success in America. The play’s Brecht is the sort who demands idolization from those around him: his wife, actress Helene Weigel (Charlotte Akin); his lover, Ruth Berlau (played as a steely Marxist ideologue with bulldog devotion by Caroline Strong in the show’s best performance); and somewhere in the background, another woman, a silent partner who may be the uncredited author of much of Brecht’s work. Even as Bentley’s career builds on his translations and writing about Brecht, and even as he is at least somewhat enamored of him, he resists the total abnegation the women have chosen. “That is the way with Brecht,” he says. “We must believe that he is a genius, and we must suffer for that belief.” Unfortunately, Marowitz, who also directs, prevents any momentum from building with short vignettes and frequent asides from Bentley to explain the action or fill the audience in. While Armstrong does earn several big laughs, reading a poem first in Bentley’s voice, then channeling Adolf Hitler, for example, the confused report Bentley gives of his final meeting with Brecht in 1956 is a mishmash of what was said, what he wishes had been said, and what couldn’t have been said—to wit, references to the Berlin Wall (which wouldn’t be built for another five years) and black holes (a term coined in 1967). Richard Montgomery’s spare, tweed-upholstered set wittily evokes the ’40s intelligentsia, and Marianne Meadows takes a star turn at the lighting board during a shock-therapy scene. Armstrong, dressed in vintage professorial-nerd-wear, and Dennen, in black leather and workman’s cap (both courtesy of Alisa Mandel’s costume design), succeed in interpreting their intellectual interconnection as a romance and, because Brecht is an all-or-nothing guy, a fight for total devotion. After all the discussion of who is exploiting whom among Bentley, Brecht, and the women who serve him, we’re left asking ourselves the play’s second question: “How big a jerk does genius entitle one to be?”