Is there any storm that true friendship can't weather? In her story Address Unknown, Kathrine Kressmann Taylor suggests that compliance with evil is one, and her two characters, established and developed entirely through their correspondence with each other, learn that lesson the hard way. Audiences attending the new stage adaptation at the Promenade are likely to learn it the hard way, too.
Director Frank Dunlop has edited for the theatre and directed this story of two business partners and friends, Max Eisenstein (Jim Dale) and Martin Schulse (William Atherton). Max writes from their San Francisco art gallery, and Martin from his new home in Germany. The play begins in November of 1932, scant weeks before Adolf Hitler becomes Chancellor and begins enacting a series of dangerous, isolating reforms. (A number of these are recounted in the Playbill and recited by Dale in a pre-show announcement.)
As the situation worsens, it becomes clear that the battle lines are being drawn between the two. Martin begins to sympathize with Hitler's policies and their effects of strengthening Germany's social and economic climate; he feels that Germany has found its destiny and that history will bear out the decisions being made. When Max's sister - an actress visiting Berlin - goes missing, he proclaims that he is unable to help protect her.
The story is solid, and Dunlop's adaptation is, for the most part, entertainingly presented and faithful to Taylor's original. James Youmans's set divides the stage into two sections, one for each of the locales, with a table the two men share placed at center stage (it's designed so that one half of the table resides in America, the other in Germany). David Lander's lights nicely help focus the action, and Jim Stewart's crisp period costumes help complete the stage picture.
Yet for all its attractive physical trappings, Address Unknown never feels compelling as a stage work. Designed to be read, this is a story that is, in itself, not inherently theatrical. There are certainly successful two-person plays told entirely through correspondence - one of the most famous is A.R. Gurney's Love Letters - but such plays generally thrive on one of the most theatrical of elements: subtext, where what is unsaid (and why) is of paramount importance.
That's the quality missing in Address Unknown. Everything here is explicitly stated, and all the actions are drawn with broad, brightly colored strokes. Attempting to get the two actors to communicate, Dunlop has them refer to each other over the course of the play, reacting to each other's words or the ones they themselves are scribing, and even perform actions unrelated to the correspondence, such as answering the door, playing music, or changing clothes. In short, Dunlop is - intentionally or not - subverting the form in which he's working.
Dale and Atherton are true professionals, and they're giving performances of admirable determination and polish, but they can't overcome this basic flaw in the show's construction. Their reactions to each always feel forced and look silly, and distract from the story rather than enhance it. They're both able to communicate the story - which involves various forms of betrayal, revenge, and atonement on both sides - but they never locate the germ of theatrical necessity that will make this a play rather than an intellectual exercise.
They can't really be blamed - it's unlikely that any other two actors could do better. The text itself just doesn't provide the opportunities they - or the audience - need for convincing drama onstage. That's because Address Unknown is not really a script, but a series of letters; perhaps this work needed less allegiance and more adaptation? While Dunlop's basic concept for an Address Unknown play might be good, his execution here may as well be marked "Return to Sender."