I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright. Starring Jefferson Mays. Directed by Moisés Kaufman. Scenic design by Derek McLane. Lighting design by David Lander. Costume design by Janice Pytel. Sound design by Andre J. Pluess.
As cruel as the show-business fates may prove for some shows, sometimes they also bestow unforeseen blessings. In the wake of a month replete with closings of the small, "sure thing," one new production has just opened which reaffirms one's faith in the power of theater.
It's the right time of year for miracles, and this is a great one. Jefferson Mays, the sole performer in Doug Wright's play I Am My Own Wife, now at the Lyceum after a successful spring run at Playwrights Horizons, has managed to transform the show from an intelligent curiosity to a full-sized Broadway show with energy and life to spare.
Mays, Wright, and director Moisés Kaufman have achieved this monumentally difficult feat in one of the most uncertain Broadway seasons in recent memory not by making any perceptible changes to the text used Off-Broadway, but by fitting the pieces of this intricate puzzle of a play together more snugly than before. Off-Broadway, the story of Wright's life-altering interactions with German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf was not quite fully formed, flagging in the second act as Mays struggled to establish and make relevant emotional connections between events in Germany both before and after Unification.
But no longer. The passage of time and additional performances have allowed Mays to more efficiently find the rhythms and transitions of the three dozen or so characters he portrays over the course of the play. Though he still hardly changes costume and generally limits his movements and breadth of facial expression, there's a completeness and sense of musical phrasing present now that his earlier performance lacked. This all has combined to make I Am My Own Wife sharper, more focused, and more moving, less coldly informed by its subtitle ("Studies for a Play About the Life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf") than by the dramatic necessity of bringing von Mahlsdorf's story to life.
The genesis of the play's story is Wright's own discovery of von Mahlsdorf in the early 1990s. Though interested primarily in her as a possible subject for his next play, Wright soon discovers that von Mahlsdorf represents something much more powerful. "...I need to believe in her stories as much as she does," Wright relates near the end of the play, in one of its most clarion moments. "That Lothar Berfelde [von Mahlsdorf's birth name] navigated a path between the two most repressive regimes the Western World has ever known - the Nazis and the Communists - in a pair of heels."
Von Mahlsdorf's story is unquestionably an impressive one, moving from young Lothar's realization of his sexuality (inspired by a knowing aunt) through his violent confrontations with his father and the eventual adoption of his own new persona. Through a combination of luck, determination, and hope, von Mahlsdorf survived the Nazis and the post-World War II occupation, only to become something of a celebrity when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. But with the fame she gained when her story became known came the possibility that she cooperated with the Stasi, perhaps even informing on others, thus threatening the acceptance she had struggled a lifetime to achieve.
Wright pulls few punches in his depiction of von Mahlsdorf, though his writing overall is quite affectionate. More important to him are her small accomplishments, which are always kept in mind in the presence of clocks, gramophones, credenzas, and other furniture on the immense rear wall of Derek McLane's set. These pieces, lit in just the right way (by David Lander), highlight von Mahlsdorf's determination to protect priceless works of art from destruction and, like the period tunes sound designer Andre J. Pluess has collected, provide the right sense of time and place. In Wright's play, as in life, the past and present are inextricably intertwined.
As for the now-ubiquitous costume provided by Janice Pytel, Mays no longer wears the black dress and elegant string of pearls as a costume, but rather a second skin. Complementing his performance still further, he has found in these clothes the spirit of von Mahlsdorf (who passed away in early 2002) and the strength and confidence to even more convincingly embody those populating Wright's saga physically and verbally. It's occasionally easy to forget no one but Mays ever appears on the Lyceum stage, given how full it always seems of memorable, well-defined characters.
Von Mahlsdorf, however, remains the most compelling, so unbelievable she could only be real; it's that line between reality and impossibility that makes her so vividly theatrical and so intriguing a choice for Wright, Kaufman, and Mays to explore. They have now tapped into her voice and are amplifying it loud and clear so that her stories may captivate and inspire others as they did Wright; for that achievement, the Broadway transfer of I Am My Own Wife is to be lauded and treasured for as long as it lasts.