- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 31, 2005

A 65-year-old East German transvestite whose demeanor more closely resembles Miss Manners’ than Dame Edna’s may not be an obvious choice for an evening’s entertainment. Yet there is no more exquisite company than Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, the cross-dressing antiques collector at the heart of Doug Wright’s composed, piquant “I Am My Own Wife,” a one- … uh … man show starring Tony Award-winning actor Jefferson Mays as Charlotte and 35 other characters.

How fitting that Mr. Mays played Peter Pan at Baltimore’s Centerstage theater before taking on the role of Charlotte (born Lothar Berfelde in 1928). Children must believe in Peter and his adventurous tales for his magic to survive. Similarly, Charlotte needs to believe her own stories about enduring first Nazi then communist rule while living as a transvestite and homosexual.

Most important, playwright Doug Wright, also portrayed by Mr. Mays in the play, needs to believe Charlotte’s stories — that she is a viable, living artifact of outsider history.

Charlotte is an inveterate collector — clocks, gramophones, Victrolas, furniture, lamps and other objects from the time of Kaiser Wilhelm II, “the gay ‘90s,” she coyly interjects. “She does not own a museum; she is a museum,” Wright says in the play.

Charlotte defies all expectations. With her plain black work dress and apron, sensible shoes and string of pearls, she is more granny than trannie. Her voice is high and reedy, containing the crisp diction and quavering Teutonic inflection of a schoolmarm who is a stickler for grammar.

But what comes out of her mouth is not always ladylike. Beneath the blue-button eyes and the sweet, crooked smile lies a barracuda of a raconteur.

Director Moises Kaufman has Charlotte moving and speaking with the swift precision of a well-made timepiece, orchestrating and fine-tuning her life as she unfolds it to the playwright.

Charlotte blithely beguiles the playwright — and the audience — with tales of operating a discreet bar for homosexuals in the basement of her house during the most oppressive era of communism, cross-dressing from childhood under the guidance of her similarly gender-bending aunt and intimations of a range of sexual high jinks that would make Alfred Kinsey blush.

Her stories can be harrowing as well — her father’s brutality and the child’s violent retaliation, the experience of nearly getting shot by Nazi guards as a teenager, and the constant harassment by the Stasi, the East German secret police.

“My Own Wife” mirrors Mr. Wright’s progress as he peels back the layers of Charlotte’s life. At first, he sees her as a shining heroine, but then the shadows move in.

The second act delves into the inconsistencies and omissions in Charlotte’s story, yet the play is not about exposing a colorful liar. Instead, Mr. Wright sees parallels between Charlotte’s collection of artifacts and her tales. With both art and life, what do you edit? What do you preserve? To Charlotte, flaws are a proof of an object’s — and a person’s — history.

Charlotte’s shifting perspectives are brought to life by Mr. Mays in a shape-shifting, unforced performance that is nothing short of alchemy. The various characters include a smarmy German TV talk-show host, an American newsman with a sorghum Texas drawl (Mr. Mays even speaks German with a Lone Star accent), two GIs with valley-girl inflections and the playwright (whose plummy, voluptuous voice is a show in itself).

Mr. Mays switches roles seamlessly and with faultless timing, giving us a vivid impression of the characters, whether they are uttering a few words or delivering a monologue. He plays Charlotte’s considerable charm and catlike wariness as if he has slipped into her heart and mind.

Charlotte believes in her story. She has convinced herself that it is the truth, and the combined forces of Mr. Mays, Mr. Wright and Mr. Kaufman conspire to make us believe as well. Like a beloved family heirloom, the bumps and holes in Charlotte’s story only make it more precious.

****

WHAT: “I Am My Own Wife,” by Doug Wright

WHERE: National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through April 10.

TICKETS: $36.25 to $71.25

PHONE: 202/447-7400

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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