I have been struggling to find a way to adequately describe Center Theatre Group’s production of Bent since seeing a preview performance nearly a week ago. I can’t remember ever leaving a theater feeling so utterly devastated and, essentially, at a loss for words. None of this is a bad thing—the production is extraordinary on every level, but while I want to shower it with the praise it so thoroughly deserves and encourage others to go witness this important story for themselves, I also never want to see it again.
Bent is a 1979 play by Martin Sherman and this production is directed by Moisés Kaufman. It has enjoyed multiple successful productions over the years, including on the West End and on Broadway, and was adapted into a film starring Clive Owen in 1997. The central role, played by Patrick Heusinger here at the Mark Taper Forum, has also been played by respected talents such as Ian McKellen and Richard Gere over the years.
The play takes place in Nazi Germany, and focuses on the persecution of gays. It begins during the Night of the Long Knives, a 1934 purge where the Nazis carried out many political murders over a three-day period. When the play was first performed, there was very little awareness about the fact that the Nazis had also targeted homosexuals. While decades have now passed, the story still feels as heartbreaking and important today as it surely was back then.
The story begins on a somewhat light note—Max (Heusinger), who is quite promiscuous, has angered his live-in boyfriend, Rudy (Andy Mientus) by bringing home a handsome stranger after another blacked out night of partying. Things quickly take a turn when the SS arrives at Max and Rudy’s home to assassinate said stranger, whom it turns out was a member of Hitler’s inner circle. Max and Rudy are forced to leave Berlin, where Rudy had been employed as a dancer at a nightclub run by Greta (Jake Shears of The Scissor Sisters). Act one features a haunting musical performance by Greta, who then disappears from the story entirely. In many ways acts one and two feel like two different shows, which appropriately shows the complete upheaval and devastation the Nazi regime brings to the characters’ lives. Without spoiling too much, act two is essentially one extended conversation between Max and a fellow concentration camp inmate named Horst (Charlie Hofheimer), which builds to a devastating climax.
When the play ended, I felt a bit as if I’d been repeatedly gut-punched for two and a half hours. Max’s monologue at the end of act one, in which he describes the actions he took to ensure his survival, was so disturbing and shocking that it left the audience in stunned silence when the lights came up for intermission. I watched the final five minutes of act two with a hand over my mouth, bracing myself for the inevitable. The curtain call, if you can even call it that, was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before—as images of Holocaust victims were projected onto the wall, the full cast took the stage, but did not bow, and did not return even when the audience continued to applaud. It was a poignant choice that appropriately made the production not about rewarding the actors’ work but about paying tribute to this important story and to the real men and women who lived it.
While they may not be seeking praise, I am going to give the cast some anyway. It is hard to imagine what an emotionally draining play this must be to perform every night, and there was truly not a weak link in the cast. Heusinger’s performance is difficult because I did not find Max to be a good person, yet he goes through such unfathomable horrors that you can’t help but feel for him, even when he makes horrifying decisions in the name of survival. He was stunning in Broadway’s Next Fall, one of my favorite modern plays, several years ago and even more stunning here. Hofheimer was just as intense and present during act two, becoming in many ways the driving force of both the play and Max’s life. Mientus, whom LA theater fans may remember from his turn as Hanschen in Deaf West’s Spring Awakening last month, was impressively three-dimensional in a role that manages to be simultaneously minor and important to both the show and Max’s character development. The ensemble was incredibly versatile, transitioning from nightclub background dancers to SS agents to concentration camp guards with ease.
The closest comparison I can make in terms of the way this show made me feel is the 2011 Broadway revival of The Normal Heart. I remember feeling physically ill and almost as if I couldn’t breathe during the most emotional moments. I think Bent, however, is the most depressing piece of theater I have ever seen. Again, I do not necessarily mean this in a bad way—I am happy this work is being performed, and Center Theatre Group is doing a magnificent job with it. It is not by any means a pleasant or comfortable viewing experience, but I do find one of the truest marks of great theater is if it has an emotional impact on you for days to come. In this regard, Bent is a stunning achievement.
Bent runs at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum through August 23rd. Tickets range from $55 to $85 and can be purchased here.