I AM MY OWN WIFE * Written by Doug Wright * Directed by Moises Kaufman * Starring Jefferson Mays * Lyceum Theater, NYC (open-ended run).

Anyone who cares about theater will want to see I Am My Own Wife, which has just opened on Broadway after two years of development (including a production at Chicago’s gay theater company, About Face) and a sold-out three-month run Off Broadway last summer. The show is an exquisite three-way collaboration between playwright Doug Wright (best-known for his play and movie Quills), director Moises Kaufman (of Laramie Project fame), and a remarkable performer named Jefferson Mays as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.

An openly gay East Berlin transvestite who survived both the Nazis and the Communist regime, Charlotte operated a museum of antique furniture for 33 years until her death in 2002. In the play, Mays impersonates not only Charlotte but all the other characters in the story, including the lesbian aunt who mentored her, the brutal Nazi father whom she murdered in his sleep, and the SS officers from whom she managed to escape during an air raid, not to mention Doug Wright, who first met her in 1993 and developed a serious case of hero worship over the course of many lengthy interviews. When he learns from German newspapers that Charlotte served as an informant to East Berlin’s secret police, Wright finds himself questioning everything he thought he knew and admired about Charlotte’s survival instinct.

Although the playwright-as-character is a stock device somewhat overused here, it helps make the central point of the play, which has to do with the unreliability of recorded history. Several competing narratives emerge -- Charlotte’s self-heroic story, the playwright’s gay-pride perspective, the media’s "Gotcha!" approach, and what the audience thinks we know about World War II and post-war Communism -- but we’re ultimately left feeling that the truth is more than what we know. The script, Kaufman’s impeccable staging, and Mays’ spectacularly detailed and multifaceted performance combine to create and sustain that mystery. A story cleaned up and smoothed out for public consumption is the equivalent of a museum of kitsch. I Am My Own Wife smartly gives us the whole mess.

a slightly edited version of this review appeared in The Advocate, December 23, 2003

see my feature story on Jefferson Mays here