Early in the Custom Made Theatre Company’s theatrical adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 novel, Mother Night, a Nazi partygoer jokingly asks protagonist Howard W. Campbell Jr., “Could you be a little less seductive and charming?” Unfortunately, the play, which opened tonight at 59E59, could stand to be a whole lot more seductive and charming. Adaptor and director Brian Katz has previously staged Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, in which the Campbell character also appears. In this production, Katz remains almost too faithful to Vonnegut’s words while capturing little of his nuance; the show is bland and overly serious, lacking the satirical edge that was a Vonnegut trademark. The play begins in 1961, with Campbell (Gabriel Grilli) in an Israeli prison, writing his memoirs while awaiting trial for war crimes, his remembrances coming to life in front of him. Campbell, a Schenectady-born expat who moved to Berlin with his family when he was eleven, gave popular radio addresses supporting the Nazis during WWII, while rather unwittingly working secretly for the American government. His professional and social circles included Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoess, Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels, Russian agent Col. Iona Potapov (aka George Kraft), American agent Wirtanen, and his wife, popular German actress Helga Noth. He is curiously blank about the war itself, not even taking sides; instead, he prefers to live in a “Nation of Two,” just him and Helga. It is this indifference to the war that leads to his downfall, which includes Final Solution orchestrator Adolf Eichmann asking him for writing advice.
In the editor’s note at the beginning of Vonnegut’s novel, the author claims to be serving merely as the editor of the American edition of Campbell’s memoirs, explaining, “I will risk the opinion that lies told for the sake of artistic effect — in the theater, for instance, and in Campbell’s confession, perhaps — can be, in a higher sense, the most beguiling forms of truth.” Truth is lacking in this fictional tale, as is artistic effect. The play, which takes its title from Goethe’s Faust (“I am a part of the part that at first was all, part of the darkness that gave birth to light, that supercilious light which now disputes with Mother Night her ancient rank and space, and yet cannot succeed.”), just falls flat. The cast, which also features Andrea Gallo, Trish Lindstrom (who fares best), Matthew Van Oss, Eric Rice, Dave Sikula, and Dared Wright all playing multiple roles, either underacts or overacts as Katz struggles to make efficient use of Daniel Bilodeau’s cluttered set, with doors that clumsily open and close and a confusing back entrance and exit. Most telling, however, is that the two-and-a-half-hour production has very few laughs; yes, it is about the Nazis and the Holocaust, but Vonnegut’s book is filled with a seductive and charming tongue-in-cheek cynicism that is just plain funny while exposing the darker side of the human condition. Vonnegut fans might do better by checking out Wheelhouse Theater Company’s adaptation of the author and playwright’s Happy Birthday, Wanda June, which is moving to the Duke on 42nd St. for a return engagement from October 18 to November 29.