Victory Gardens Theater

at UIC Theater

Most Americans know that Adolf Hitler politicized the 1936 summer Olympics, reducing an international event to a racist showcase for the supposed supremacy of Aryan athletes. It wasn’t as if we hadn’t been warned: fearful of playing into his propaganda trap, the Amateur Athletic Union, along with Jewish groups and civic leaders, had urged the U.S. team to boycott the Munich charade. But politics prevailed.

Predictably, Jewish athletes were banned from the Nazi team. What most Americans don’t know is that U.S. Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage cravenly allowed Hitler to dictate the makeup of the American team: two Jewish sprinters, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, were scratched from competition at the last minute, replaced by two African American athletes (who, ironically, were acceptable to Hitler because he couldn’t believe a Joe Louis or Ralph Metcalfe would threaten his toy supermen). Jesse Owens won four gold medals for the U.S., but overall American athletes were trounced by the Germans–deservedly so for swallowing the Nazi line that, as nonpersons, Jews were nonathletes.

As a national shame the capitulation ranks with the 1939 banning of soprano Marian Anderson (whom the DAR prevented from performing at Constitution Hall). But as shames go, this one has been nearly forgotten–the sole excuse for Steve Carter’s formulaic play.

A midwest premiere by Victory Gardens Theater and the Theatre of the First Amendment (of Fairfax, Virginia), Spiele ’36 or the Fourth Medal dutifully retells the ugly scandal, its edifying purpose to show how embattled minorities, the Jewish runners and their black teammates, forged an alliance in the teeth of Hitler’s hate. If it didn’t quite happen this way (and much here is speculation), it should have.

But not the way Carter wrote it: his offering plays as if it were written for a grant, not an audience, as if only its commission inspired it. Its ton of preaching to the converted can’t make up for a fundamental lack of passion; for most of its slow-moving, repetitious 140 minutes, Spiele ’36 is just earnest “movie of the week” material, soggy with set speeches that tell us just how to view the cut-and-dried characters’ moral dilemmas and mental blocks. Fittingly, the didacticism ends with an actual lecture–on the aftermath of the events and the importance of what we saw: “And the rest you know–and if you don’t, you should.” That’s about as insecure an ending as you’ll ever hear.

In Carter’s docudrama, Glickman and Stoller become Chaim Lux and Willie Herman, respectively a bookish ideologue and a scrappy Brooklyn street fighter; both wrestle with questions of religious and racial identity. Jesse Owens is Oliver Weymon, a runner who loves to literally show his backside to his enemies. They just want to run and win; becoming political pawns has nothing to do with their sense of sport.

The Brundage surrogate is a Nazi stooge who spouts flawless German to his German mistress/secretary, dines with Hitler, and ruthlessly tries to browbeat the brave American coach, Pug Masterman, into dropping his Jewish runners, purportedly because their safety can’t be insured. (Pug had earlier fought an effort to segregate the men in the Olympic housing–the blacks were packed six to a room compared to two whites per room.) Pug succumbs to cancer and his successor, a Christian bigot, speedily implements the fuhrer’s commands.

Like Neil Simon in Biloxi Blues, Carter wants to show how Americans can back each other up despite regional and religious differences. The teammates rally behind the rejected runners: Weymon and fellow champion Gus Bass in effect run for every oppressed minority. Symbolically, the Jewish athletes give the African Americans their bar mitzvah medals and everybody gets hugged twice, perhaps to make up for the utter lack of spontaneity in anything they said.

Sandy Shinner’s lavish, pageantlike staging tries to distract us from the lifeless editorials, but she’s stuck with a script where a feel-good scene ends with the blatant tag line, “Maybe we both grew up tonight.” Galen Ramsey’s sound design explodes with Nazi marches and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. James Wolk’s set–cold Doric peristyles and fascist banners–is lit by Michael Rourke like a Nuremberg rally, and Margaret Morettini’s costumes preserve some sense of period (except in the track shoes). We even get film clips from Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia. But it’s all window dressing on an empty display.

The uncertain performances seldom escape the gravity of their speechifying. His talent wasted, Ned Schmidtke, as the folksy, hard-drinking, pep-talking coach, sounds like a caricature of Knute Rockne via Mike Ditka. (Ironically, as he ferociously urges the team to become a big, well-oiled fighting machine, he comes off like a fascist himself.) John Judd plays his nemesis assistant as if he aches to tie someone to a railroad track, and David Mink’s Brundage seems to have just escaped from a World War II propaganda film.

The athletes fare better because their struggle to overcome stereotypes–their own and those of their buddies–carries some complexity. Jeffrey Lieber is solidly believable as the slow-to-anger, uncloyingly noble Jewish runner, with Michael Shapiro a sharp contrast as his spunky Brooklyn comrade. Michael Jerome Johnson nicely contrasts Oliver Weymon’s apolitical desire to win with his amazement at his own solidarity with whites. (It’s fascinating to watch a “them” become an “us.”) The seven other athlete-actors give their personal best; before the run is over they’ll probably run several hundred miles.