There are few better examples of the axiom "truth is stranger than fiction" than the new production at Playwrights Horizons. Yes, there are times when I Am My Own Wife comes close to stretching believability to the breaking point, but that only heightens the effect, both theatrical and intellectual - who could make up a story like this?
Perhaps the ring of authenticity is made even more clear by the author, Doug Wright, and his involvement in the story. He learned about Charlotte von Mahlsdorf soon after the razing of the Berlin Wall, and began a correspondence with her that lasted the better part of a decade. I Am My Own Wife is mostly composed of the letters he exchanged with von Mahlsdorf, or audio recordings of his personal interviews with her, but though von Mahlsdorf died in 2002, it's her voice and personality that drive the play.
Horror, intrigue, pathos, and humor are all present in significant quantities in this highly improbable, yet eminently believable, tale of a transvestite that moves from East Berlin in the height of World War II, through Communist rule, and to Unification in 1990, when von Mahlsdorf's past - as a survivor, supporter of the gay underground, Stasi informant, and furniture collector - all came to light.
Jefferson Mays portrays all the characters (including Wright, compiling his notes for the play), though his most memorable creation is, of course, von Mahlsdorf herself. Clad throughout in little more than a black dress and string of pearls, Mays, though decades younger than von Mahlsdorf, finds the ideal notes of irony and humanity that make the play as moving and striking as it frequently is, and he imbues actions as simple as caressing or displaying a decades-old gramophone or an antique clock with meaning significant enough to have actually been the woman who rescued them from destruction at the hands of the Nazis or the Stasi.
Moisés Kaufman also does very significant work, allowing just the right background for each of the play's vignettes to shine through; there's never a question when or where the story is taking place. (Mays's brilliant split-second character transformations help as well.) This makes Derek McLane's physical backdrop mostly unnecessary, though the collection of clocks, phonographs, and other furniture von Mahlsdorf may have had in her museum keeps the significance of her work present throughout, a stark reminder of what could have been lost if entrusted to lesser hands.
While I Am My Own Wife succeeds as both a history lesson and an acting demonstration, it falters a bit as a play, though, dictated as it is by reality, that's perhaps understandable. After almost back-to-back tense events and realizations during the first act, much of the second act - focusing on von Mahlsdorf's relationship with the Stasi and her post-Unification tribulations - falls a bit flat, seeming like an overly-long denouement.
Mays's devotion to the show never flags, but the characters and situations tend toward the plainer and less distinct, the relevance and dramatic clarity not coming through as well as earlier in the show. One of the play's most important lines (hinted at by the title) doesn't pierce the heart the way it's intended, coming across as somewhat effective, but out of place. Wright's free-form interpretation and shaping of events, which works so beautifully in the first act, lets him (and the audience) down in the second.
Yet the second act does contain some of the play's most arresting verbal and visual imagery, and the show's final tableau is unforgettable. Even if I Am My Own Wife is occasionally uneven and unfinished, never quite creating one piece from all its individual parts, it's an excellent showpiece for Mays and a stunning tribute to a remarkable person and the decades of history that passed through her hands.