I Am My Own Wife
Duke of York's Theatre
Rarely can any New York show have ever won as many awards as I Am My Own Wife. Indeed, in 2004 it must have been harder to find any other straight play or one-man show that got a look-in.
The only mild surprise is that while Doug Wright swept the board on the writing side, Moisés Kaufman didn't do too badly for his direction, getting nominations rather than awards. Last but not least, Jefferson Mays might well have been a little disappointed that he failed to sneak in a few Best Actresses prizes to accompany his six Best Actor awards, including the coveted Tony!
At first glance, the material sounds unpromising in the extreme. A biography of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, an unknown German transvestite, pawn of the East German Stasi or secret police and unreliable witness does not sound the kind of that play that would make it to Broadway let alone become a much talked-about hit.
The success results from a mix of factors. I Am My Own Wife has an endearing script, Jefferson Mays gives an outstanding performance well directed by Kaufman and the production values are very high.
Derek McLane's set has depths that slowly reveal themselves to be an antique fan's dream, and this owes a much to the skill of lighting designer David Lander.
The story itself is beyond bizarre. A boy called Lothar Berfelde was born in 1928 and after finding his transvestite aunt's frilly frocks started wearing them during the war. This mummy's boy hated his Nazi officer father and, in 1943, killed him. As he commenced his prison sentence, though, the Russians arrived, freeing him forever.
From there, he started collecting antiques, especially phonographs and gramophones. When a renowned gay cabaret bar closed under the Communists, he moved it lock, stock and very literally barrel to his basement. Throughout the Communist years, he ran the only gay cabaret bar and brothel in East Berlin.
During this period, he would have been an obvious subject for blackmail and therefore it is no real surprise to find that he became an agent of the Stasi and shopped his friend and possibly lover, Alfred Kirschner, while keeping the imprisoned man's best antiques.
That is one side to the play. The other element that keeps it constantly interesting is the story of the efforts of playwright Doug Wright and his German-based American friend John to investigate the life of this almost legendary man/woman with a view to turning it into a theatre piece.
This is where Mays' talent really comes to the fore as, dressed in a simple black dress and headscarf he switches between the Germanic accents and idioms of Charlotte, the gruff tones of Alfred and, with confidence, the contrasting voices of the two Americans who were trying to establish the reliability of the story.
I Am My Own Wife has enough political intrigue to complement its unusual biographical story. It thus leaves the viewer satisfied by the plot and able to enjoy a masterful demonstration of acting that was inevitable from a man weighed down by the acclaim that he has received in his home country.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher