Photo Credit: Cory Molner
The cast of Walking to Buchenwald, through June 24 at The Liminis Theater
Black humor is a treasured genre of stage and screen, embodied in the works of playwrights such as Martin McDonagh and Joe Orton as well as iconic films such as Dr. Strangelove, Fargo, and Parasite. In those works, the balance of humor and horror deftly blend and the results leave you breathless.
In Walking to Buchenwald, now at Convergence-Continuum theater, the innovative playwright Tom Jacobson attempts to achieve the kind of lift-off provided by such contrasting tones. (He has done similar kinds of tricks in other works, and Con-Con did one full justice 14 years ago with his time-twisting play Ouroboros.) But in this instance, due to a volley of pedestrian jokes and some weak writing decisions, a script that starts out playing it all for laughs later turns into a mystifying slog.
The conceit of the play is that a woman named Schiller and her female gal pal Arjay are planning to take Schiller's elderly parents—lefty retired theater professor Roger and his equally progressive wife Mildred—on a European tour to England, France and Germany. They also plan to announce their engagement to her folks along the way.
The timeframe of the play is never defined, but the President of the U.S. is referred to as a "dick-head" Republican. So, you know, fill in the blank as you choose. This set-up offers Jacobson the opportunity to indulge in a bevy of old-folks’ japes and travel gags. We are bombarded with well-worn travelogue topics (British roundabouts, Paris church windows) and the annoying habits of old people meandering around foreign countries. Mildred needs her naps, Roger can't understand why there are no washcloths in the hotel bathrooms, they walk slow and obsesses about the cost of everything.
Those stereotypes aside, the playwright tries to build tension during the trip around snatches of ominous news reports from the states (ie. the President just declared martial law!). As the two couples travel about, they are confronted with hostile reactions from some locals who despise the American administration in D.C., even as these four continually protest: "We didn't vote for him!"
Amid visits to various museums and restaurants, the rando activities and observations accumulate. Mildred repeats her desire to visit cemetery sites so she can connect to her dead relatives while at lunch Roger bemoans the ghastly life the goose suffered to deliver his tasty foie gras.
One saving grace of the production is that those two parental roles are perfectly landed by veteran actor John J. Polk—never better as Roger—and Nanna Ingvarsson who does a dandy "Estelle Getty in Golden Girls" turn as Mildred, kvetching with style but never pushing it too hard.
As the second act approaches the actual but "unplanned" titular walk to Buchenwald, one of the horrific concentration camp sites where Nazis annihilated Jewish people, Jacobson reaches for magical realism while spinning the dials of various medical issues to ramp up the stakes.
They visit a museum where a plastinized corpse on display "talks" to Roger about life, then Mildred announces she's dying of cancer, then they overhear a report that the dick-head President dropped a tactical nuclear bomb on somebody, then Roger has an apparent heart attack.
(Note: Usually, a "Spoiler Alert" would appear before such revelations. But no need, since all those startling occurrences are sloughed off with relative ease and the show goes on.)
The off-stage action of the President is a limp attempt to bring into clarity the monstrous things this country has done in the past, including dropping the only two nuclear bombs in history. But it all fails to jibe with these four people and their quotidian rants and tussles.
As Schiller, Emmy Cohen does a respectable job creating a Type-A woman who likes organizing things, including her relationship with Carolyn Todd as Arjay. But those two never come close to developing the chemistry that Polk and Ingvarsson easily display in abundance. John Peters, in and out of various wigs, portrays a variety of foreign characters with a light yet definitive touch.
Under the direction of Brian Westerley, WTB generates plenty of laughs from its sitcom-certified collection of stock jokes about ugly-American tourism and always hilarious geezers. But when Jacobson tries to fuse that story with his take on the military role of the U.S. in our dangerous world, the humor loses its edge.
Ultimately, the playwright uses Buchenwald as a metaphor for his own purposes. That ends up being clumsy, borderline offensive, and out of synch with the rest of the play.
Walking to Buchenwald
Through June 24 at Convergence-Continuum Theater performing at The Liminis Theater, 2438 Scranton Road, Cleveland, 216-687-0074, convergence-continuum.org.
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