By Doug Wright
Directed by Moisés Kaufman
Starring Jefferson Mays
Directed by Moisés Kaufman
Lyceum Theatre / 54th Street East of Broadway / (212) 239-6200

Reviewed by David Spencer

When playwright Doug Wright creates a sleeper, must-see event, he doesn’t fool around. And he doesn’t fear extreme choices in either direction. His terrific "Quills", a Grand Guignol morality play about censorship starring the Marquis de Sade, was a dark comedy extravaganza, a thing of epic theatrical gesture for a full cast.

"I Am My Own Wife" however, is a thing of intimate theatrical gesture, its full complement of characters housed within a single performer, a thing that might seem delicate if it weren’t, beneath the gentility, of surprisingly muscular passion. Much like its central figure. For, you see, this is a play about Charlotte von Mahlsdorf—a real-life German transvestite who managed to survive both the Nazi onslaught and the subsequent, repressive Communist regime…and make of her house a famous museum of antique furniture.

Her story is an amazing one, from the time she discovered her true gender identity (with the encouragement of an aunt who was, herself, a cross-dressing lesbian) through her establishment as a medal-of-honor-winning German celebrity. A status that became cruelly controversial when inconclusive, but official, records of her possible collusion with the Communists were made public. This last segment is a moment in the play where nearly everything we have learned about her inspiring and horrifying and strange story is put into question. How much of the colorful history was her own self-invention? How much is true? An interesting question from which the playwright does not shirk, though he certainly has his firm belief.

Having found that the story was never more interesting than when told by the subject, Mr. Wright has kept the words—hers and others—in one actor’s mouth: Jefferson Mays, in a black dress and pearls, delivers von Mahlsdorf’s recollections and observations with a whispery intensity, both pointed and mysteriously ethereal. And then suddenly switches voices to become the old friend, a Southern man’s-man military type stationed in Germany, who alerts the playwright to the existence of a fascinating character—and the playwright himself: as portrayed (one has to assume accurtately) he’s a declared homosexual with some of the classic effeminate broad-strokes indicia—but these characteristics are eventually, subtly and carefully shaped to bring out something deeper: a man whose interest in his subject is losing any sense of objectivity as it grows in intensity…who realizes at some point that, just as he must face the prospect of never knowing Charlotte’s real truth, there are just some things he needs to believe. In portraying these characters and a few dozen more—both cameo caricatures and complex personæ—Mr. Mays is nothing short of hypnotic. This is one of those legend-making one-actor performances in an equally legend-worthy piece of material.

The evening is directed with meticulous sensitivity by Moisés ("The Laramie Project") Kaufman—himself a pioneer in documentary theatre—and unfolds on Derek McLane’s abstract set, whose large, backdrop shelves, no less mesmerizing than Mr. Mays himself, could only be described as an antiquer’s vision of heaven.

"I Am My Own Wife" is not merely a sleeper hit in the traditional sense…but also in the sense that its imagery, themes and story may well haunt your dreams for a time…

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