BENT, European Repertory Company. In his introduction to the forthcoming new edition of Heinz Heger's The Men With the Pink Triangle, historian Klaus Muller points out that "a mere quarter of adults in the United States know that gays were victims of the Nazi Holocaust." So any time a production of Bent reaches a new audience it's worthwhile. Martin Sherman's moving if manipulative drama recounts the experiences of a gay man in 1930s Germany: hunted by the gestapo after he picks up a storm trooper in a bar, promiscuous party boy Max ends up in the Dachau death camp, where his love for a fellow prisoner transforms him from a selfish, apolitical deal maker into a doomed but dignified man of conviction. Written in the late 70s and inspired in part by the Heger book, Bent is an eye-opening account of the brutal psychological and physical torture endured by homosexuals under Hitler.
But didactic value aside, the European Repertory Company's well-meaning but wobbly production barely begins to convey the power of Sherman's play. Charley Knapp's poorly paced staging fails to differentiate between the fast-moving suspense of the first-act chase sequences and the slow, spare, Beckettian concentration-camp rituals in act two. It's also technically sloppy in ways that go beyond a few opening-night glitches; among the more egregious errors are a tediously droning new-age sound track, a clumsily executed shock ending, and the failure of David Mersault as Max to appear with his head shaved in the Dachau scenes. Hairstyle aside, Mersault's surly, charmless performance is a major mistake; Max must start out as a sympathetic though shallow fellow if his emotional development is to have the larger spiritual and political meaning Sherman intended. Abler portrayals are delivered by Jeff Atkins as Rudy, the boyfriend Max betrays in order to survive, and especially Thad Anzur as the gentle prisoner Horst, who teaches Max to stand up for his gay identity. And the play itself remains a potent study of survival and sacrifice that imparts a grim but important history lesson.