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Paulanne Simmons

"Defying Hitler" Offers a Glimpse of History and a Man's Soul

Rupert Wickham in "Defying Hitler." Photo by Sheila Burnett

"Defying Hitler"
Directed by Peter Symonds
Presented by Theatre Unlimited
59E59 Theaters
59 East 59th St.
Opened May 2, 2006
Tues. & Thurs. 9 p.m., Wed. & Fri. 7 p.m., Sat. 4 & 9 p.m. and Sun. 2 p.m. & 6 p.m.
$25 ($17 for 59E59 members) (212) 279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com
Closes May 21, 2006
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons May 5, 2006

At the end of "Defying Hitler," monologuist Rupert Wickham says, "Real history takes place among us, the anonymous masses," which pretty much sums up what the play is all about. This is both its strength and its weakness.

Based on the memoirs of Sebastian Haffner, German journalist, historian and political commentator who grew up in Berlin between the two world wars, "Defying Hitler" is adapted and performed by Wickham and directed by Peter Symonds. It was developed at London's Royal National Theatre, where it was performed as a companion piece to Michael Frayn's "Democracy," and it is now part of the 200t6 Brits off Broadway festival at 59E59 Theaters.

Speaking from 1930s England, where he has taken refuge, Haffner begins his story with World War I and its disastrous aftermath in Germany: the fall of the Kaiser, political turmoil, inflation and the rise of Hitler, who brought Germany to "new levels of vulgarity." In frighteningly familiar terms, he traces the Germans' willing "loss of personal freedom" after the burning of the Reichstag and shows how the Nazis managed to take complete control of Germany after winning only 44 percent of the vote in Germany's last pre-war election, even though all other political parties were outlawed.

Haffner weaves his own personal story into world history through unsparing reflection. He talks about his father's slow demise after capitulating to the Nazis and signing a loyalty oath so he will not lose his pension. He relates how he sacrificed principles and attended a Nazi training camp where he was forced to give the Nazi salute so he could take his final exams at the university. Only he didn't die; he eventually escaped to England.

"Defying Hitler" is certainly engrossing and often very moving. The language is sometimes intense, sometimes offhand but always wrenching. Wickham's delivery is flawless. But none of this can alter the fact that "Defying Hitler" is everything but theatrical.

The problem resides mostly in the playwright's failure to give a reason for Haffner being in that carefully constructed study and telling his story to some unnamed person or persons. There is no urgency in Haffner's story. One never gets the feeling that his life will change in any way, that he will have to make any major decisions when his narrative is finished.

Symonds keeps trying to give Wickham something to do. Wickham looks at a scrapbook and framed pictures the audience cannot see. He pours himself a cup of tea, then not too much later, a glass of water. Toward the end of the play, he polishes his shoes. He puts on his jacket. The question is why? Where is he going? Who is he meeting? What does he have to do?

A whole generation of Germans had their "spiritual organ removed," says Haffner. But by the end of "Defying Hitler," it seems that this is not quite true. There were many Germans who were neither Nazis nor Nazi sympathizers. They were ordinary human beings who were too overwhelmed, incredulous or immobilized to mount an effective campaign against the Nazis.

If "Defying Hitler" had shown people taking significant action against the Fuhrer, there would have been a lot more drama, if a lot less truth in the play. As it is, "Defying Hitler" is a narrative, brilliantly told, but still a narrative, and not nearly as theatrical as it might have been if it had really been about defying Hitler.

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