One of the marks of a satisfying night at the theater is this: does the experience stay with you after you leave? “Address Unknown,” running through Sunday, April 10, at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, will linger with you long after you leave the theater. It is based on a story by Kressmann Taylor, first published in 1938 in Story magazine, then in Reader’s Digest in 1939, and subsquently as a novella. The work is adapted and directed by Frank Dunlop, who also directed last summer’s New York production.
Set in San Francisco and Germany in the early 1930s, “Address Unknown” is the story of Max Eisenstein and Martin Schulse, German-born friends who are partners in an art gallery in San Francisco. Martin (La Mura), has recently returned to Germany with his wife and ever-expanding brood to a “comfortable” life in a large home, while Max (Freed), remains in San Francisco to run the gallery. In their early exchanges, the men write to one another with the humor and affection of friends who are as close as brothers. Even the affair between Martin and Griselle — Max’s actress sister — that ended sadly, has done nothing to break the bond between them.
The play has a slightly awkward construct — the two characters interact only through epistolary exchanges, speaking aloud the letters they have written as monologues, never talking directly to each other, except in one very brief phone exchange toward the end of the play. And yet the construct works, for you see each character’s reactions — be they subtle but potent facial expressions or larger gestures with emotional underpinnings — as each hears and reacts to the words in the letters spoken aloud. With wonderful performances by Sam Freed and Mark La Mura, and powerful themes that resonate far beyond the setting of the story, “Address Unknown” is a compelling night at the theater.
James Youmans’s set, at first glance appears to be one room with a long table and bookshelf behind it and a credenza and coatstand on the side. But at closer inspection, one side of the stage is clearly art deco, the other, a more European antique look, the rooms mirror images of each other. Each man occupies his own side of the stage — on opposite sides of the world, and, as time passes, on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum as well.
As their correspondence moves away from discussions of the business and family and begins to address the political landscape in Germany, Martin doesn’t know what to make of Hitler. He recognizes that his homeland has been battered by the war and that the German people are badly in need of hope. With Hitler, he says to his friend: “There is a surge — there is hope again.” A leader is found, but a leader to where? Later, when conditions in Germany’s social and economic climate begin to improve, it doesn’t take long for Martin to start finding things to appreciate about Hitler — “our gentle leader” — and the Nazi party.
It would be easy to paint Martin as a bad guy, but La Mura manages to show the layers of humanity in this man as he inches farther and farther away from his friend and their former commonly held liberal ideologies. As Martin comes to sees it, Hitler and his policies have something important to offer Germany. “He is a doer, a man of action,” he writes to his increasingly concerned friend back in the United States. From the start, La Mura makes Martin likeable, so when he starts to talk about coming to see “the painful necessity of some of Hitler’s policies,” the audience, like Max, can’t quite believe what they are hearing.
Max, a Jew, hopes his old friend is being vague in his letters in order to get around sensors who are watching the mail in and out of Germany, but eventually he comes to see that Martin has truly embraced Nazi ideology. At one point, Max turns to his old friend in desperation to help his sister (and Martin’s former lover) — Griselle is missing after performing in a play in Berlin. But Martin does nothing to help. With that, the friendship is irrevocably broken, and the play takes an unexpected turn that is best not revealed.
Performed without an intermission and clocking in at just under an hour and 15 minutes, “Address Unknown” moves swiftly — almost too swiftly. Some of the choices the men make come so quickly that they are hard to believe, particularly the choices made by Max after Martin’s unwillingness to help Griselle. This is no fault of Freed’s — his Max is both likable and lost as his old friend and the world he once knew slip further and further away from him. The challenges lie more with the play, which gallops along just a little too quickly to its twist of an ending.
Still, the play resonates and stirs. With layered and nuanced performances, and a tragic and human story, “Address Unknown” shows how ordinary people can quickly get caught up in ideological madness, and how horror begets horror. Director Dunlop, speaking at opening night’s post-play discussion with the audience and the actors (which will take place after every performance), likens the play to a Greek tragedy in that the themes in “Address Unknown” are not limited to those of the time of this story and of these two men, Max and Martin, one a Nazi and one a Jew. Indeed, comments from audience members young and old showed that the overriding reaction was one of astonishment and even fear — at the uncanny similarities between the play’s themes and the activities and ideologies of the current Administration and its supporters.
“Address Unknown,” George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. $28 to $56. Through Sunday, April 10.