It’s hard to imagine, now, the days when short fiction published in a magazine could cause a national sensation, but such was the case in 1939, when Kathrine Kressmann Taylor’s “Address Unknown” sent an issue of Story magazine flying off the drugstore racks. Now director Frank Dunlop has edited and staged a handsome production of it, with two first-rank actors. It’s easy to see why Taylor’s story aroused such interest, but when all’s said and done, it’s still just a short story, in an old magazine-fiction mode, with a glib kicker ending that, lacking deeper exploration, comes off as dishearteningly facile.
Two German Americans, a Jew and an Aryan, have been partners in a San Francisco art gallery. The Aryan, who’s married with children, moves back to the old country just as the Weimar Republic goes into its tailspin. He’s soon running with the local elite, who are soon running with Hitler. He becomes a Nazi, laboriously explaining in letters to his ex-partner that no animus against his Jewish friends is involved. Inevitably, there’s a woman to complicate matters, a death, and a fiendish revenge—not nearly so shocking onstage as when you read it. What keeps the brief (75 minutes) evening aloft are Dunlop’s care and his actors’ skill. Jim Dale, though oddly cast, invests the Bay Area Duveen with a dancer’s diable au corps that makes his final transformation all the more startling, while William Atherton tracks the German partner’s drift into totalitarianism with a hapless diffidence that gives his storm-trooper speeches a constant, creepy undercurrent of pathos. If only Taylor’s story were as meaningful as the play her interpreters evoke.