Before 1980, when Martin Sherman's play about the persecution of gay men during the Holocaust debuted on Broadway, the subject had been swept under the rug by generations of historians.
"Bent," which opened last Friday in a production directed by Drew McCabe in Buffalo United Artists Theatre, participated in a wider dawning of awareness about the Nazis' complex and often harrowing treatment of homosexuals that began some 40 years after the fact.
This sometimes strained local revival of the challenging play, last produced by BUA in a well-remembered 1999 production, comes at a moment of both progress and pain for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community.
The piece focuses on the plight of several gay men in Germany during the rise of the Third Reich. Max (Marc Sacco), a promiscuous gay man who embodies the liberal sexual attitudes of Weimar Berlin, is involved in a strained relationship with Rudy (Jonathan Shuey), an uptight young dancer. The Bohemian pair's hangover is promptly shattered one hazy morning when a Nazi soldier enters their apartment and promptly shoots and kills a man Max had picked up at a bar the previous evening.
After that, the horror escalates by steady degrees, until death consumes practically everything. Max and Rudy attempt to flee but eventually find themselves on a train to Dachau. At the camp, Max befriends and eventually falls for his fellow prisoner Horst (Chris LaBanca) in a brief affair that speaks volumes about the tenacity of love in a few sparse phrases.
Sherman's play serves the vital purpose of shining a harsh light on a previously shrouded history. It humanizes the struggles of thousands of gay men who suffered under the Nazi regime and who, as the lowest of the low in a grim hierarchy of nonconformity, often suffered the cruelest punishments in concentration camps.
But it also makes exceedingly difficult demands on its two central actors, Sacco and LaBanca, who sometimes struggle under the Herculean task of maintaining the humanity of their characters and the engagement of their audience in the most monotonous of circumstances. That being said, each produces compelling moments of searing emotional honesty, as when Sacco's Max explains how he stayed alive on the train to Dachau.
The second part of the play consists almost entirely of the two men, Max and Horst, moving imaginary rocks from one side of the stage to the other. They toil under the remote observation of Nazi guards, unable to look one another in the eyes or to interact beyond surreptitious exchanges.
Nonetheless, a kind of love blossoms between them under the harshest of circumstances, and we are thus led to empathize in ways previously impossible with a plight previously unacknowledged.
McCabe deserves credit for dispensing with German accents and allowing his actors to speak in their natural manner, an approach that allows cast members to concentrate on the emotional task at hand. But under his watch, the play seems to linger too long on the moments of tedium Sherman has intentionally inserted. Often, the emotional transparency the play's love affairs require remains elusive in some key spots. That is likely to improve as the run progresses.
At its heart, "Bent" does what good narrative drama should always do, by combining an informed perspective with a compelling human story that helps us make sense of the times in which we now live.
Its opening -- less than a week after the suicide of a Williamsville teen taunted to death by his homophobic peers and the official end to the military's discriminatory "don't ask, don't tell" policy -- provides an opportunity to reflect on how far our society has come in its acceptance of sexual difference, and how far it still has to travel.
2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
WHEN: Through Oct. 15
WHERE: Buffalo United Artists Theatre, 119 Chippewa St.
TICKETS: $15 to $23
INFO: 886-9239 or www.buffalobua.org