New York City Theater
"On the Border"
Medicine Show Theatre, Manhattan
Seeing an off-off Broadway show on a makeshift little stage, tucked away among New York’s commercial buildings, can be an exciting jolt. Or it can be a disaster. That’s the luck of the draw, the chancy experience of covering such shows. This time around, “On the Border” veers more toward the latter—more disaster than success. This is a surprise, given the credentials of performers, designers, director, playwright listed in the program.
Playwright Howard Pflanzer has a potentially good story line, but one that never comes through clearly. He has taken the real-life German-Jewish cultural critic Walter Benjamin and depicted his last night on earth. Benjamin has attempted—alas, too late—to cross from Nazi-dominated Europe into Spain. But he is stopped at the border. Accepting his fate, Benjamin overdoses with hashish and descends into a dream world where he encounters important literary figures.
The result is not a brilliant surreal scene, a Jean Cocteau film on stage, as one might hope. Immediately, as the cast goes into a dance number, depicting pre-Nazi German decadence, the effect is klunky, amateurish, off-kilter. Is it director Barbara Vann—or are performers—to blame?
Moreover, in using Benjamin’s journals (which the playwright has apparently researched carefully), the material, though high-flown, is muddled, and calls for more careful editing.
Yet, “On the Border” is not without its redeeming moments. The stage set, for one. A pile of detritus (lamps, clothing, over-turned chairs) on stage right and left creates a world gone awry. A stairway to nowhere cleverly depicts the Pyrenees through which Benjamin must ascend. And, among the actors, Lutin Tanner is particularly effective as Death, playing the role with flair and a detached amusement. As he gambles with Benjamin (a capable Charles J. Roby) for his life, it is a chilling interlude.
From time to time Death asks Benjamin, “Are you ready?” (ready to call it quits, that is). This reviewer was indeed ready to do just that—long before the show’s 100 minutes had elapsed.
November 19, 2007