The most impressive ensemble cast currently on Broadway is wrapped up in the riveting person of Jefferson Mays, who embodies the host of contentious characters challenging each other’s notions of history and identity in Doug Wright’s saucy, sagacious, entirely fascinating solo play, I Am My Own Wife. Mays’s performance has, if anything, gained in clarity and authority since the piece moved from Playwrights Horizons to the Lyceum, where the wider but shallower space puts the audience into closer confrontation with Wright’s perplexing hero(ine). He/she actually existed: Lothar Berfelde, the elderly German transvestite who, calling himself “Charlotte von Mahlsdorf,” managed to survive both adolescence under the Nazis and adulthood in Honecker’s East Berlin, plus a firestorm of 1990s debate about what, exactly, he/she did to elude those two repellent regimes.
Treading serenely through Moisés Kaufman’s subtle production, clad in Charlotte’s orthopedic shoes, shabby black dress, and pearl necklace, Mays becomes not only the enigma herself but her friends, colleagues, oppressors, detractors, and interviewers, including the playwright. His hypnotic presence reaffirms, immaculately, the play’s vision of human personality as simultaneously fluid and individual.
Luigi Pirandello treated the same notion with brilliant tragicomic flair in his 1917 “parable,” Right You Are, so effectively that his work carries force even in the dismal embalming director Fabrizio Melano has given it for Tony Randall’s National Actors Theatre. Several good actors, notably Penny Fuller, Mireille Enos, Herb Foster, and Henry Strozier, fight hard, but to little avail. Pirandello lives, but this production’s deader than futurism.
“Unnerving Berlin: Doug Wright Quills Up a Transvestite Mythmaker” by Michael Feingold