- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 27, 2006

That charismatic monster of German theater, Bertolt Brecht, receives an etched-in-acid profile in the Scena Theatre’s staging of Charles Marowitz’s “Silent Partners,” a vastly enjoyable look at the mutually parasitic relationship between the playwright and his translator, Eric Bentley, a critic and academic.

Mr. Marowitz says in the playbill that his world premiere work is “freely adapted” from Mr. Bentley’s book, “The Brecht Memoir,” and his creative license is evident in the play’s peppery wit. Not many people would associate Brecht (played here by Barry Dennen) with the words “laugh riot,” but “Silent Partners” revels in delicious humor, especially when reducing Bentley (Ian Armstrong) to a quivering bowl of mashed potatoes every time Brecht manipulates him with a combination of seductive insinuation and Teutonic fastidiousness.

One priceless scene has Bentley finally growing some backbone and trying to break ties with Brecht, who senses his disciple is about to leave the fold. He sidles up to Bentley as if embracing a lover and coos into his ear, and the harsh caress of his words take all the starch out of Bentley’s body, leaving his arms and legs akimbo like a spent marionette.

If the play drives one point home, it is that Mr. Brecht needed his collaborators and sycophants as much as they needed him. “Silent Partners” strongly suggests that Elizabeth Hauptman served as much more than a dramaturg on Mr. Brecht’s most famous works, and that Ruth Berlau (the superb Caroline Strong) — his lover, muse, and political conscience — was the inspiration for every character from Mother Courage to Polly Peachum. To Mr. Brecht, bed partners and source material were one and the same, the erotic and the intellectual merely two different forms of release.

Miss Berlau suffered the most from his callousness — driven to madness by his abandonment of her once she’d served her purpose. The only person who can handle Mr. Brecht is his hausfrau wife, Helene (Charlotte Akin, bristling with mute resentment), who appears to be made of equally stern stuff.

The play also ponders why people allowed Mr. Brecht to use them so. Mr. Bentley freely describes Mr. Brecht as “a smelly, repellent peasant,” but still would walk through fire for him.

At first glance, you are not bowled over by the communist theater giant’s affected workingman’s garb, stinky cigar and emotional coldness. But Mr. Dennen’s sly performance gives a hint of Mr. Brecht’s effect on people — his laser-like intellect, his unshakable aesthetic, and even his sense of humor, displayed in his waggishly evasive, jabberwocky responses to the one-track questions he gets while testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Mr. Armstrong is greatly entertaining as Bentley, our narrator and guide to Brecht’s hard world. He may be second banana, but his astute observations and pie-eyed double takes are a comic delight.

In his direction Mr. Marowitz is overly indulgent with his own play, including protracted and windy scenes that would better serve the whole if drastically edited. The second act could use some trimming, as we trudge like Mother Courage herself to the play’s inevitable ending. And thank goodness the exacting Mr. Brecht wasn’t there for the long and noisy scene changes, which sounded like a herd of elephants roaming about off-stage.

“Silent Partners” bracingly explores the relationship between idol and sycophant, which in this case is mutually exploitative: Mr. Brecht gave his coterie significance, and they gave him art.

***

WHAT: “Silent Partners,” written and directed by Charles Marowitz

WHERE: Scena Theatre at Warehouse Theater, 1021 7th St. NW, Washington

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Through May 21

TICKETS: $25 to $32

PHONE: 703/684-7990

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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