National Jewish Theater

Does a writer really work like a camera, simply recording whatever the lens takes in? That’s the metaphor Christopher Isherwood employed to link the semiautobiographical Berlin Stories he wrote in the late 30s: he sought objectivity by imagining himself a camera, its shutter always open. The Berlin Stories were the source for John Van Druten’s 1951 dramatic adaptation I Am a Camera, which in turn was expanded into the glitzy musical Cabaret, later made into a movie. Isherwood’s “camera” held a lot of film.

But as the stories, the play, the musical, and the film proved, no man is a camera. The writer is bound to reveal much about himself that he thought he was concealing–otherwise, why would we want to read him? In The Berlin Stories, Isherwood’s quest for male lovers, for hire or for love, is patent, much more outspoken than in Van Druten’s selective scenes. Isherwood recorded himself in the act of recording others.

Despite its omissions, Van Druten’s sprawling script still supplies life enough for any stage. What emerges is a group portrait of half a dozen little people who find themselves caught up in freewheeling Berlin just as the Weimar Republic is giving violent birth to the Third Reich. About to be consumed by history, these people have a pathos and humanity they would not have had on their own. Surely many other stories were also being lived out in 1930 Berlin, but Isherwood’s have come to define the era.

In I Am a Camera, Christopher calls himself a “beachcomber of the city”; he not only takes in but narrates and acts in the scenes he records. An unsuccessful novelist struggling to make ends meet by teaching English to wealthy Berliners, Chris is a sort of counterpart of Rodolfo in La Boheme, someone who can endure starving for art as long as life keeps supplying him with good material.

His raw material is the people he meets during the four months he’s “waiting for something to happen” while rooming in Fraulein Schneider’s boardinghouse. Schneider, a spinster who lives vicariously through her tenants, despite her fussbudget eagerness to please is ignorant and anti-Semitic, the kind of survivor of troubled times we can do without.

The most flamboyant tenant is another English expatriate, Sally Bowles, a good-time girl and full-time free spirit. She’s burned most of her bridges behind her–her English fiance is not pursuing her to Germany–and now entertains at the Lady Windermere bar, where she’s in demand offstage much more than on.

Infatuated with life no matter how often she gets into trouble, always preferring a pretty lie to the boring truth, Sally seems a breath of fresh air; we know from the start she’ll inspire young Chris to find his story-telling calling, as Mimi inspired Rodolfo. Irrepressible and irresponsible, Sally soon occupies both Christopher’s room–he moves to a cheaper one across the hall–and his life, which she fills with her own.

Among Sally’s hangers-on is Fritz Wender, a handsome fortune hunter currently pursuing Natalia Landauer, a Jewish department-store heiress. Intending to seduce Natalia into underwriting his excesses, Fritz finds himself both frustrated and charmed by her apparently invincible purity. And Fritz changes Natalia too: this woman who has transformed herself into a caricature of Teutonic humorless efficiency discovers through Fritz a tenderness that opens her up, revealing political courage as well. When she defies the increasingly arrogant, brown-shirted bully boys of the growing National Socialist Party, her bravery shames Fritz into taking his own personal stand.

Though the Sally we see is bolder and more impetuous than Natalia, she’s better at inspiring independence in others than at achieving it herself. She’s dogged by back luck or bad choices, and when her world starts to fall apart, Sally is tamed fairly quickly; she’s no longer sure that something will always turn up. With unthinking cruelty, she takes her anger out on Chris. The final blow is the arrival of Sally’s martinet mother, who comes to drag her prodigal daughter back to high-tea respectability and to dress Chris down for being a parasitical writer. Though Sally spiritedly defends Chris, the damage to their friendship has already been done. But so has the good; he’s seen enough of her life to be able to immortalize her.

In one of the play’s most revealing exchanges, Sally wonders whether Chris will be able to make her live in his fiction; otherwise, she fears, she might be lost forever. Whether the real Sally ever said this or not, the moment says much about Van Druten’s method: this “camera” is all too aware of the picture it’s taking. Despite the detail and fidelity to experience of these observations, Van Druten’s Chris still has a “how I spent my summer vacation” callowness. Even his denunciation of Fraulein Schneider’s bigotry seems intended more to save Isherwood from accusations of political naivete than to act as dramatic confrontation. Add to this awkward immaturity Van Druten’s episodic narrative structure, which is true to the stories perhaps but less than gripping onstage, and you have a play that’s saved only by its characters.

But in Arnold Aprill’s National Jewish Theater staging, those characters emerge as more than just young Chris’s embodied cautionary tales. The characters are precisely accurate to the period–these really look like 30s people–and recognizable outside it. And if this long play feels like a novel, it’s because we get to know these characters from within and without. With her own natural ebullience and warmth, Barbara E. Robertson captures Sally’s insouciance, and she doesn’t try to hide Sally’s darker and shallower qualities. If the brassy side conveyed by Liza Minnelli is missing here, it’s not missed. But Robertson could do more to cushion the shock of Sally’s change of character, especially her sudden fear of losing her individuality to Chris.

Chris Karchmar initially underlines Fritz’s lounge-lizard side, then steadily slows down and sobers up; the gigolo starts to take on a hero’s shape. Barbara Faye Wallace at first plays the neurotically self-possessed Natalia with too much brusque, no-nonsense competence, spitting out her lines like a Mauser rifle. With her invincible intelligence and disarming literalness, Natalia seems earthquake-proof–but in the scene when Sally and Natalia discover that they have similar troubles with men, Wallace shows how Natalia’s protective veneer collapses to expose a deeply anguished woman.

Sometimes the characters’ period stereotypes and previous cinematic incarnations overshadow the performances. As Sally’s ignorant American admirer (he confuses Jews with Nazis), David Barbee overdoes Clive Mortimer’s aw-shucks Yankee ordinariness; Jack Buchanan did it better in films of the 30s and 40s, but then maybe this type is no longer around. Likewise Caroline Dodge Latta as Sally’s ferociously possessive mother recalls Mrs. Simpson scheming to become Edward’s queen; still, there’s no question she’s true to the time. And though Lorna Raver Johnson plays her sputtering Fraulein Schneider passionately, Cloris Leachman’s crazed krauts in Young Frankenstein and The Nutt House kept coming to mind.

First and last, Jeffrey Hutchinson as the camera is a wide-eyed, compassionate artist-observer, a type he also depicted well in the Body Politic’s Wenceslas Square. Chris is a role made up mainly of reactions, but as Hutchinson registers them, he’s supportive of everyone onstage and never less than believable.

Gary Baugh’s vaguely German set, interestingly skewed and with high windows that appropriately threaten overhead, suitably suggests the topsy-turvy times. Jessica Hahn’s costumes are elaborately right in every detail.