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The Radicalization of Rolfe

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 28, 2016

Logan Sutherland and Alex J. Gould
Photo by Dixie Sheridan

I'll give it to Andrew Bergh: He sure knows his Rodgers, Hammerstein, Crouse, Lindsay, and Lehman! The Radicalization of Rolfe, Bergh's new play running through Saturday at the Soho Playhouse following a successful Fringe Festival run earlier this summer, is a twisted love letter to what may be those five men's most enduring creation: The Sound of Music (the first four, of course, concocted for the stage version, the last came in for the ultra-famous movie's screenplay). It's packed with references, huge and minuscule, to the events of that classic musical—so many that, even if you're a hardcore expert, you probably won't catch them all immediately.

Take the first exchange, between Rolfe Gruber (Logan Sutherland), a handsome young Aryan-in-the-making, and the swastika-armband-wearing Herr Zeller (Dominic Comperatore), both of whom were in the earlier work. This is about what you'd expect, but it's still funny. (It's also the most obvious gag—they have to lure you in slowly, after all—though they get tougher.)

Zeller: I am under the impression that you have developed a… what... friendship with one of the Von Trapp daughters. Is that true?

Rolfe: Yes, yes. I have. With the eldest daughter. Liesl.

Zeller: How old is she?

Rolfe: She is sixteen. Going on seventeen.

Zeller: And you are—

Rolfe: I am seventeen. Going on eighteen.

If you don't get that, or if it didn't make you laugh, you should stop reading now and you certainly shouldn't buy a ticket. There's more to the show, in theory if not in execution (pun not intended). Bergh has tried fervently to escape the shackles of the source, but they don't release easily. Especially when the story is one that's rather less credible as being set with these people in, as the program states, Austria in "the last golden days of the 1930s," than in America of more recent vintage. Bergh has plenty of points to make, but they have trouble landing amid all the comedic landmines.

The plot turns, in fact, on Rolfe not only not being in love with Liesl Von Trapp, but instead hot and heavy for the avowed (maybe-quasi, maybe-ex) communist, Johan Schmidt (Alex J. Gould), the nephew of the Von Trapps' housekeeper; other jokes strongly imply that Friedrich, the oldest the Von Trapp children, is gay as well. These bits are presumably inspired by the performances of, respectively, Daniel Truhitte and Nicholas Hammond in the movie, but play more as gratuitous slashfic than deep insight into Anschluss-era European politics.

Bergh is attempting to expand the field of view to show how some suffered even more than the Von Trapp family did, which is undeniably true, and indeed Rolfe and those around him (the play's title is, shall we say, not inaccurate) move in quite different, less-complimentary circles. But one of the things that's always made The Sound of Music so compelling in that way is that the Nazis remain, largely, a threat poking around the edges of our consciousness only to wreak pure havoc in the final scenes—proof that the Von Trapps, as insulated from the threat as anyone could be, could also become victims.

Cabaret, as but one example, rides multiple layers of symbolism to another, starker viewpoint that is, in many ways, even more terrifying. Working so far behind the scenes, Bergh reduces Zeller and his unseen compatriots as irate paper-pushers—occupying bureaucracy was, undoubtedly, one of the Nazis' chief tactics, but it falls short of riveting drama when depicted onstage. If you worship the movie (which is far more the basis for this than the stage musical), maybe you can endure the static conversations between Zeller, the butler Franz (Jay Patterson), and Frau Schmidt (Polly Adams) that fill most of the 90-minute playtime, as they muse on significance, strategy, and, occasionally, that problematic governess of the Captain's. Otherwise, it may feel like a lot of filler.

This is not because of the actors, who are competent and professional (if never exciting) across the board, or director Abigail Zealey Bess, who's staged things with the most kitchen-sink fidelity possible in this format. There's just nowhere for them to go with the material. The gay scenes work better, mostly because of the charm and chemistry that Gould and particularly Sullivan display, but much of their dialogue is pat and familiar to the genre. ("I have a girlfriend," Rolfe protests at one point; "Who, after you kissed her, instead of going further, you ran away," Johan retorts.

Which isn't to say it can be entertaining as well. "She smells nice," Rolfe says of Liesl at one point. "You know, clean and... and bright. Like edelweiss. And... and she's always happy to see me." And the intimation—a surprisingly major plot point—that Rolfe was a good enough singer to infiltrate and perhaps win the Salzburg Music Festival is good for a chuckle, too.

One suspects, though, chuckles aren't the desired outcome, and that Bergh would prefer we came away with a deeper understanding of the sky-high stakes behind a property that's often derided as saccharine. Well, okay, but that would be easier if the play itself were a more serious and original excavation of these concepts, rather than so frequently behaving as a delivery device for crazy call-outs. For a story-behind-the-story, the absent characters we already know—and love more than these—remain disquietingly front and center. Maybe The Radicalization of Rolfe just isn't radical enough?

The Radicalization of Rolfe
Through October 29
SoHo Playhouse, 15 Vandam Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: SoHo Playhouse

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