When the German government apologized to the country's gays in 2002 for the atrocities against that community during World War II, it had a lot to be sorry for. Between 1933 and 1945, the SS arrested more than 100,000 men under a broadly interpreted law against homosexuality; half were convicted, with as many as 15,000 sent to concentration camps. Many died of starvation, disease and exhaustion; others were subjected to brutal beatings and chemical experiments in a search for the so-called gay gene the Nazis deemed a threat to future generations of Aryan kids.
The striking thing about these horrors is that they became part of the German fabric at the drop of a field marshal's cap. As late as 1930, Berlin—where Diversionary Theatre and Ion Theatre Company's current Bent is partly set—was jammed with gay bars, clubs, saunas and an appreciative worldwide clientele. The setting changed virtually overnight as a psycho housepainter named Schicklgruber came to power. That's where this entry falls mystifyingly short. While the production values are generally up to code (especially Ion's), they pale against writer Martin Sherman's threadbare approach. We're apparently witnessing a wartime tragedy of biblical proportions, but without the broad brush of history as a backdrop, we're not really sure.
Cool-headed, smooth-talking Max, the central figure in this drama, is of no help. Sherman dots him with lots of good personal traits, such as his talent for talking his way out of sticky situations; these will keep him alive following his and his lover Rudy's arrests. Rudy (a very good Chris Buess) won't survive the trip to Dachau, where Max takes up with Horst. The latter sports a pink triangle on his prison jacket, which identifies him as gay. Meanwhile, Max has touted his Jewish upbringing to his captors, thus skirting that telltale accoutrement.
As Max and Horst, Michael Zlotnik and Charlie Reuter are physically persuasive and assured as they build a sexual relationship through only their force of will, but that relationship is blunted amid Sherman's failure to work the context of their predicament. The Nazi party was the 20th century's greatest menace to man, a twisted collective of rabid dogs bent on enacting Hitler's plan for a thousand-year Reich—so, beyond a cursory killing or two, where's the wholesale societal bloodlust? Beyond a cursory reference or two, where's the irony in the revelation of gay practices among the soldiers? Beyond almost no reference at all, where's the SS crackdown on Berlin as a world gay capital? Indeed, where's Berlin at all?
Ion's Glenn Paris and Claudio Raygoza have a great talent for staging real-time, graphic story elements. Watch their adept direction as Max and Horst scurry back and forth with loads of rocks (busy-work designed to drive them crazy) as they act on their attraction. And Walter Ritter and Steven Lone get mentions for their bright performances as situational subtext. Christopher Renda's light design is topnotch, as much a part of the undercurrent as Ritter and Lone.
But bottom line: A few days before the show, the folks at Diversionary sent me several links on the travesty of wartime gay persecution. Right kind of 'em, for sure—the thing is, it's not Diversionary's job to provide study aids to Bent, any more than it's our job to have to read them beyond reason. It's Sherman's task to supply some kind of back-story to all this, a back-story he fails to take into account. As it is, Zlotnik and Reuter's fine work is a theatrical footnote to history when it should have evolved as chapter and verse.
This review is based on the opening-night production of Oct. 30. Bent runs through Nov. 22 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd. in University Heights. $29-$33. 619-220-0097, www.diversionary.org. Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.