With quick, sure strokes, the Theatre@First production of Martin Sherman's play "Bent" establishes where and when we are. It's 1934; period music plays; a few struggling plants decorate a cramped apartment space, which is delineated by a single chair and a few sticks of furniture. Most telling, though, are the apartment's occupants: Max (Jason Hair-Wynn), so tightly wound into himself as to be nearly unreadable, and Rudy (Rocky Graziano), a dancer and Max's boyfriend. The two are not quite arguing; Max is too hung over, and Rudy is too passive-aggressive to fight. The object of their tension is Wolf (Dan McConvey), a handsome young fellow they brought home the night before. This is news to Max; "A threesome?" he asks, struggling to recall what, exactly, he got up to in his drunken state the night before.
"Maybe the two of you had a threesome," Rudy sniffs.
Mere minutes later the Nazis all but kick the door down, Wolf is dead, and Rudy and Max are on the run. The Night of Long Knives has just taken place; Ernst Röhm, Hitler's former confidante and a closeted homosexual, is dead, suspected of planning a putsch. The last vestige of protection for Germany's gay culture has been stripped away. Paragraph 175, the infamous law under which gays could be prosecuted, and persecuted, is now in full effect. In Act 2, the stage will no longer sketch out a Berlin apartment; it will present us with the ghastly milieu of the concentration camp.
The title of "Bent" refers, superficially, to the state of being gay. But on a deeper level, it refers to the way entire societies can be twisted out of shape. Nazi Germany is the most egregious example to linger in our collective memory; the carefully systematized business of wiping out entire demographic sectors was carried out by sociopaths and their morally blank followers, for all the familiar reasons. Decency, morality, racial and ethnic purity; sanitized labels that mask the rank horror of out and out murder, and worse.
It takes a lot to get under the skin of someone like Max, but the humiliations the Nazis visit on him (forcing him to have sex with the corpse of a 13-year old girl, for example), under the smiling guise of their version of "family values," eventually do the job. After he ends up in the concentration camp Dachau, Max opens up to a new friend, Horst (Zach McQueary), whose pink triangle marks him out as gay. Max, for his part, has managed to secure a yellow star, marking him out as a Jew; this is true enough, as he is Jewish, but Horst disdains him for it, reminding him at every opportunity that he's wearing the wrong symbol.
Max and Horst manage to forge a connection; for that matter, they manage to make love, before the very eyes of the guards and without ever touching, in a scene that's overwhelming in its sheer power thanks to Hair-Wynn and McQueary's piercing performances. When Max finally relates how his father, a wealthy factory owner, fired an employee because Max found the man attractive, the anecdote sketches in the crucial backdrop that fills us in and reminds us that spasms of madness like the Holocaust don't simply pop into existence out of nowhere. The mass murder of millions of people--Jews, gays, political dissidents, the differently-abled, the disenfranchised, the unlucky--was the culmination of decades, if not centuries, of social prejudice that was expertly exploited by the politically adroit, all without ethical compunction.
For that matter, the stereotype of the emotionally disconnected, sexually voracious gay man is both honed and promoted by a society unwilling to accept or allow the natural affection that a gay or lesbian person has for someone of the same gender. If Max seems to embody the idea of the gay man as cool, insatiable, urbane, and slippery, it's because this is the particular straitjacket he's been presented with, and stuffed into. He's been told, repeatedly, that he may not love anyone else; it's here that the play reaches its deepest and most intimate, not to mention its most uncomfortable, level of meaning. If Max has been "bent" into such a condition, whose fault is it? Director Nick Bennett-Zendzian explores each of these levels, and his cast holds nothing back, offering riveting, raw performances.
This production asks us to consider once more what "Bent," in its every staging and it its 1997 film version, has always asked: Is our contemporary upswing in the acceptance of GLBTs and others deemed "different" really the mark of a more educated and diverse culture? Or are we simply passing through our own "Weimar" phase, before populist resentments and political cynicism open the door, once more, to highly organized and legally sanctioned mass murder?
"Bent" continues through September 22 at Unity Somerville in Davis Square, Somerville. Tickets cost $15 ($12 for students and seniors) at the door and are available via email from email@example.com or online at www.theatreatfirst.org or via phone at 1-877-557-5936.