Mr. Kolpert

A Red Orchid Theatre

All changed, changed utterly….

–William Butler Yeats, “Easter 1916”

On Saturday, February 15, millions of people all over the world engaged in what might be called preemptive demonstrations against war with Iraq. The photos in the next day’s New York Times were stunning: vast crowds in Rome, London, Paris, Prague, Berlin, Manhattan jamming the streets and squares. Comparisons to the Vietnam- war era were as inadequate as they were common. This wasn’t like the testosterone-fed student riots of 1968. This wasn’t an uprising. It was the first, unprecedented manifestation of a new international community–the same community we were promised when the Internet began–showing up as if at a global city council meeting to express its consensus, its commitment, and its hope.

By 7 PM Sunday, February 16, when German playwright David Gieselmann’s Mr. Kolpert opened at A Red Orchid Theatre, what he had to say about the morally numb and alienated in contemporary Germany seemed just so…yesterday. Almost literally. This mid-90s script had outlived its currency by a little over 24 hours.

In the world of, oh, February 14, Gieselmann’s black comedy would have seemed savagely apt. Here are Ralf Droht and Sarah Kenner, a well-educated middle-class couple sharing an apartment in an unnamed city. Inspired equally by Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 novelty film Rope and by boredom pushed to the point of pathology, they decide to play a game. They will invite another couple over and tell them that a locked trunk in the living room contains a freshly killed man, Mr. Kolpert. Part of the fun, of course, lies in the fact that there may very well be a body in the trunk.

What follows recalls any number of famous exercises in the absurd and the anomic. Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? springs to mind. So do Harold Pinter’s comedies of menace and Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, in which two dinner guests are so dissociated from their lives they don’t realize they may be married until certain coincidences come to light as they make small talk. Even Agatha Christie figures as an inspiration, though for much of its length Mr. Kolpert is less a whodunit than a wasitdun.

Gieselmann adds a few fin de millennium touches. First, while Albee was fastidious enough to leave his characters’ drunken retchings offstage, Gieselmann makes vomit something of an ongoing sight gag and throws in loads of other bodily fluids as well. And where Pinter, in a play like The Homecoming, assumes that people have to be coaxed out of their morals, Gieselmann makes no such accommodation to social norms. His characters need only the right occasion to unleash their deviance. In fact, they seem to have done away with deviance as a category entirely. There’s nobody to side with here. Everybody’s sick. The play’s voice of conscience, such as it is, is lodged in the throat of Bastian Mole–the male half of the visiting couple, an abusive narcissist who can’t resist beating up anybody who offends his sensibilities. Gieselmann gives us a society in which the sense of decency has become such an anachronism that to retain one is to be perpetually out of your mind with rage.

Which made this a chillingly astute, if messy, bit of social commentary–prior to February 15. Now, we’ll see. The antiwar demonstrations may signal a recovery from the sort of empathic dysfunction depicted in Mr. Kolpert. On the other hand, we may be back to numb by next week. We may be there now.

Still, Mr. Kolpert is well worth seeing even if you end up seeing it as nostalgia. David Tushingham’s translation is a vulgar marvel, fluent and hilarious. (Also intriguing: is it true that Germans have the option of getting egg on their pizza–and if so, how?) Tushingham mediates as much as he translates, disclosing Gieselmann’s voice to an English-speaking audience while keeping it specifically German.

Though far from incompetent, Karen Kessler’s staging is sloppy in some surprisingly basic ways. For one thing, she never communicates a clear picture of the offstage geography of Ralf and Sarah’s apartment, leaving us unsure, for instance, of where people are going when they disappear through a certain exit. She also never comes to grips with the effluent issue: apparently uneasy–not to say queasy–about Gieselmann’s festival of fluids, she tries to walk an unsatisfying line between disclosure and denial that at times leads to actors seeming to forget where they just threw up. But worst of all, her blocking provides easy opportunities for characters to flee the apartment at times when fleeing would make a lot of sense. More than once we’re left to wonder why this or that doomed soul doesn’t just open the door and walk out.

But the ensemble makes these problems completely endurable. Lawrence Grimm is especially vivid as Bastian, his entire body seeming to purr when someone asks about his work, then pained and wary in those few seconds before his mind is able to process yet another outrage. Michael Shannon’s shambling, sleepy Ralf continually surprises us with his acuity and his viciousness, while Jane Baxter Miller’s Sarah continually alludes to the sexual subtext of the evening’s bloodletting. You fool around and fool around and somebody gets hurt.