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 The Theatreguide.London Review


I Am My Own Wife
Duke of York's Theatre Winter 2005-2006

Doug Wright's one-man play won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Tony for best Broadway play in 2004, and actor Jefferson Mays won the Tony and several other awards as best actor.

I call attention to those facts as a counterbalance to the report that I just didn't get it. And, judging from the polite but not enthusiastic applause of the quarter-full house, neither did most others in the audience. Not for the first time, something seems to have been lost in mid-Atlantic.

Charlotte von Mahlsdorf was the name taken by an East German transvestite who lived quietly through the Nazi and Soviet years collecting nineteenth-century furniture and artifacts.

With the fall of Communism she (The play always calls her She, and I'll follow its lead) was honoured for preserving a heritage the previous regimes disdained, and became a minor celebrity, along the lines of Britain's Quentin Crisp, until a backlash when secret police files showed that (like roughly a third of the East German population) she had been a Stasi informer.

Doug Wright met and interviewed her in 1993, and this play is made up for the most part of pieces of those interviews. Jefferson Mays plays not only Charlotte but also Doug and a dozen or so other secondary characters.

And I didn't believe much of it and didn't care about any of it.

Yes, I know Charlotte was real, but Wright's portrait of her is such a selective hagiography that she becomes a bland nonentity. (You have to scour the programme notes to discover, for example, that as a boy she was a member of the Hitler Youth, or that she got her start collecting antiques by scavenging things left behind by camp-bound Jews - facts which might have helped create a layered and complex dramatic character.)

The possibility that she may have pre-censored and coloured the tales she told Wright is raised in the questions about her Stasi file, but then papered over and dropped. Wright is so determined to turn her into a gay ikon that he completely dehumanises her.

What, after all, is her story - at least as Wright tells it? The only Nazi she seems to have met was a gentleman and the wartime bombing of Germany actually freed her from a minor jail sentence. She spent the Communist years living comfortably in an inherited mansion collecting her antiques and even hosting gay parties without much police interference or any visible means of support.

Where, aside from the fact that this man went around in a dress, is there any basis for a play here? Perhaps Charlotte's own autobiography tells the story better.

Jefferson Mays' performance, whatever power it may have had in New York last year, has been homogenized into generic sweet-little-granny, while all the other characters (including Wright) are embarrassingly bad, with exaggerated accents and cartoon characterisations. At any Edinburgh Festival you will encounter twenty solo shows better written and better acted than this one.

The New York critics and award-givers are not mad. Something has just gone wrong with this show on its way to London, and I doubt if it will stay here long.


Gerald Berkowitz

[The show closed in less than a month.]

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Review - I Am My Own Wife - Duke of York's 2005