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Watch on the Rhine

A Thriller at Every Turn

By Lillian Hellman
Arena Stage, Fichandler Stage, Washington, D.C.
Thursday, March 2, 2017, D–9&11 (corner, theater in the round)
Directed by Jackie Maxwell

Fanny in blue floral print dress has her left hand at her chest, while in the background, David in light blue shirt and tan slacks sits on the couch, one foot crossed under the other leg, watching Marthe in a white blouse and ankle-lengh tan-striped skirt opening shopping bags with Babette.
Fanny Farrelly (Masha Mason, center) loses control of the goings on in her home as her son David (Thomas Keegan) watches Marthe De Brancovis (Natalia Payne) and Babette (Lucy Breedlove) admire new purchases in Arena Stage's production of Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine. Photo by Colin Hovde, Arena Stage.

As Shakespearean theater fans, we had one significant reason to see the Jackie Maxwell–helmed production of Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Certainly, the play's subject matter about the rise of fascist governance on the Rhine at the dawn of World War II and the palpable concern of such matter today in this city on the Potomac is an important reason to see the play, but that wasn't our instigation. Nor was the politically charged moment when the audience breaks into applause at every performance when Thomas Keegan playing David Farrelly tells Kurt Müller, "You're a political refugee; We don't turn back people like you." For a less heady reason, there's the casting of Marsha Mason as the matriarch Fanny Farrelly, but that was a non-factor, too, because if you search this website, you'll find her in a Shakespeare play in the Productions Seen lists but, tellingly, she's not mentioned in my review of that production.

However, it was a member of the cast that made this a must-see production—for Sarah, my wife. Back in the mid-1990s, her Air Force duties took her to Montgomery, Alabama, and she carved out an evening of free time to get over to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival to see a production of Hamlet, and she stayed for the after-show talkbacks, taken with the performance of one Andrew Long. When the Air Force assigned her to the Pentagon and we moved to Washington, D.C., in 2003, Long had become a fixture at the Shakespeare Theatre Company and the Folger Theatre. He's moved on to New York, where we've seen him in the Sam Mendes-directed Bridge Project production of Richard III (with Kevin Spacey) and The Iceman Cometh at BAM, and in the The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime on Broadway. I couldn't convince Sarah to see that play until Long took over the role of Ed (the father) in the second cast—then she was all for attending.

Long returned to D.C. to play Müller in Watch on the Rhine, enticed by the opportunity to work with one of his favorite directors, Maxwell. This subsequently enticed Sarah to urge our attending. I certainly benefited from all this enticement, enjoying a gripping yarn and its singularly realized characters portrayed by an outstanding cast, including Mason and, of course, Long: As good as he's been every time I've seen him, this particular performance convinces me why Sarah was so taken with his work all those years ago.

I'm not familiar with much of Hellman's work, and didn't know Watch on the Rhine. However, Arena State Artistic Director Molly Smith showed great foresight selecting this play for a winter slot in the theater's 2016–2017 season as a centerpiece of the company's Lillian Hellman Festival. "Right on the heels of a new presidential administration, Watch on the Rhine brings forward a discussion of patriotism and what it means to be American," she writes in the program notes.

Maxwell, in her director's notes, discusses the "seismic" shift in the "American political landscape" between her receiving the assignment from Smith and the start of rehearsals a year later. "Little had we known how this exploration of America on the edge of a new world in the middle of the 20th century would become so amazingly apt right now and so specifically in this city. The story of well-heeled matriarch Fanny Farrelly and her son trying to understand the ramifications of the visit of two sets of Europeans to their comfortable Washington home brilliantly explores how cultures can clash and fear can grow at lightning speed."

Hellman places the Farrelly's home about 20 miles outside of D.C. in the spring of 1940. Europe is at war; the United States, not yet. Todd Rosenthal's set for this theater-in-the-round production is a veranda with a white pagoda dome, nice furniture, a piano, bar cart, and flowers. The house's residents include Fanny's son, David, and two boarders, Marthe and Teck De Brancovis (Natalia Payne and J. Anthony Crane, respectively). Arriving at the house is Fanny's daughter and David's older sister, Sara Müller (Lise Bruneau) with her husband and three young children. Judith Bowden's costumes accurately portray the fashions of the time, from the subtle details of the aristocratic Farrellys and De Brancovises to the plain simplicity of the Müllers.

Despite the intimacy of the 680-seat Fichandler Stage, its acoustics swallow up too much dialogue, a disservice to Hellman's intricately carried-out plot baits and switches. The play features a bit of superficial sexual intrigue as David and Marthe express attraction for each other, noticed by her husband, Teck. A Romanian aristocrat with an arrogant demeanor and a vicious comportment, Teck displays conniving tendencies obviously leading to something sinister, we're sure. Yet the real mystery builds around Kurt and, by extension, Sara, and even their children, so well-behaved, capable of speaking several languages but forgetting which one they are supposed to use in the current circumstances.

Kurt, it turns out, is a key figure in Germany's anti-fascist movement, a secret agitator in the effort to bring down Hitler's government. Sara is his fully involved assistant, and the children are complicit. Teck, with much snooping and enlisting his connections at the German embassy, figures out Kurt's identity and attempts to blackmail Kurt for travel money to return to Romania. Teck, though, has some secrets of his own of which Kurt is fully aware.

Teck in cream jacket and tie with white shirt stands attentively as Marthe in the background smokes a cigarette next to the piano
Teck De Brancovis (J. Anthony Crane) and his wife Marthe (Natalia Payne) have a moment of relaxation before the crises hit their marriage and his welfare in Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine at Arena Stage. Below, Kurt and Sara Müller (Andrew Long and Lise Bruneau). Photos by Colin Hovde, Arena Stage.

This cat-and-mouse game (in which you're not sure which is the cat, and which the mouse) plays out on a canvas of American ignorance. Though Fanny and David have great distaste for fascism, neither have a clue of what havoc—economic as well as social—the Nazi government has caused in Europe, including in its own country. When Fanny wonders out loud how such a "well run" government could be corrupted with bribery, Kurt cuts her off. "What a magnificent work fascists have done in convincing the world that they are men from legends," and later reiterates, "They are smart, they are sick, and they are cruel." When at a climactic turn Fanny and David have left Kurt and Sara alone with Teck, the Romanian says, "The new world has left the room. I feel less discomfort with you. We are Europeans, born to trouble and understanding it… They are young. The world has gone well for most of them. For us—the three of us—we are like peasants watching the big frost. Work, trouble, ruin—but no need to call curses at the frost."

Though ultimately a suspense thriller, the play intertwines warm humor, especially in the personality of Fanny. Mason takes her character to the edge of doddering but never once sheds an ounce of her self-respect. Her intelligence is ever in evidence, even in those moments when she seems to be acting impetuously foolish, and her honest feelings burst through her social veneer. This sets up many of the part's great one-line jokes, which Mason delivers with sharp timing. "You're not young, Sara," she says upon seeing her daughter for the first time in 20 years. "You look more like Papa now. That's good. The years have helped you." To her son-in-law: "You are a good-looking man, for a German—I don't remember you that way." To the three obviously smart and well-behaved youngsters: "Are these your children? Or are they dressed-up midgets?" And yet, as she proclaims to David in her exit line, "I am not put together with flour paste," which Mason has by now proven, though her performance is a fine confection to savor.

In this 1940-penned play, the women are largely serving traditional roles of the times, but Hellman gives her characters untraditional strengths. Anise (Helen Hedman), the French housekeeper, displays a streak of pride and a household standing far above her place, constantly going toe-to-toe with her boss on matters minute and material (the household's other servant, Joseph, an African-American man of natural dignity played by Addison Switzer, also insists on and receives respect from Fanny).

The most surprising character in this play of intrigue is Marthe De Brancovis, not because she has anything to do with the political plot but because of the way she redirects the domestic plot. Definitely psychologically abused and, if we believe her husband's threats, a victim of physical abuse, Marthe nevertheless ventures into a flirtation with David as she embraces the Farrelly lifestyle of luxury and shopping (a happy sidetrack in the wandering refugee life her husband's ventures have landed them in). So when Marthe, though uncertain of David's true feelings for her, makes her public stand against Teck, it's a powerful plot twist we don't see coming, and Payne manages the turn believably and forcefully, relegating Teck to fangless bully. We anticipate watching how her relationship with David will flourish; and Keegan, performing his role with steady reserve, gives us an awed David likewise anticipating what's next.

However, Hellman, having made her feminist stand, moves quickly on to matters more dangerous for the other occupants of the house and all of society, and the audience, like Fanny and David, is forced to leave behind our complacently romantic mindsets.

Kurt, in gray suit and a scar on his left check, wraps his arms around Sara, in simple blue jacket and dress, their faces cheek to cheek and smiling.Noticeably, that mindset is not shared by the former Sara Farrelly, now Mrs. Müller, though she and her husband display the most movingly romantic moment on stage, a long, lingering kiss in the presence of the whole uncomfortable company. Bruneau delivers a masterful performance, electrifying in her unexpected entrance (the family is preparing for her arrival later in the day) and turning ever more complex with each of a series of curtains opening on the Müllers' true lifestyle. It's a portrayal that grows richer in appreciation after the curtain call as you look back on the woman of the first act, giddy to be back home after so many years and nervous in her self-perception as the prodigal offspring, and realize that the woman we've come to know by the end of the play has been there all along. You see it in the total, unconditional, and heartwarmingly romantic love she shares with her husband. You see it in the attentive training she gives the children while ensuring they have special childhood moments (and here's a huge shoutout to the performances of all three young actors, Ethan Miller as Joshua, Tyler Bowman as Bodo, and Lucy Breedlove as Babette). In the end, we understand why Bruneau's Sara willingly abets Kurt to take on a mission that will probably lead to his death.

Long plays Kurt, the wounded German Army veteran of the Spanish Revolution and now mystery counter-insurgency agent, with great attention to detail, from the continuing pain in his once broken hands to his constant alertness. Through his seeming discomfort at being a foreigner in an unfamiliar home and in the presence of an unembracing mother-in-law, Long fools us as much as Kurt outwits everybody else in the play (except Sara). The audience is so totally on Kurt's side as Teck tightens his noose around the Müllers, we don't see the trap he's led Teck into. And when it springs—Kurt literally springing onto Teck and choking him to stillness as eldest son Joshua enters and stands still watching until, on his father's command, he rushes to help carry the unconscious count out of the house and to his death—the audience applauds more heartily than it did with the earlier refugee line. It is left for Kurt to explain his actions and political beliefs to Fanny and David, and Long delivers his speech on sacrifice and duty with rousing resonance. Then, he reveals an emotionally frail man as he says goodbye to his children and his wife. Long shows us true bravery: it is not borne of strength of bone or muscle or manner but through strength of character, mind, and resolve.

Which, of course, is far beyond the grasp of Crane's Teck. Even Fanny can't cover her disgust for him in her confectionary sugar. So thorough is Crane's portrayal of the richly despicable Teck and his annoyingly smooth arrogance that I expected the audience to boo him in his curtain call. After all, it applauded his demise on stage—with a young boy assisting in the killing—an ovation I don't think was inspired merely by the great choreography of the scene. But Arena Stage audiences appreciate good theater and great acting when they see it and give Crane a rousing cheer as he takes his bow.

Meanwhile, his fellow cast members beam with appreciation of Crane's performance of imperfect villainy, and we add another actor to our must-see list.

Eric Minton
March 18, 2017

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