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Jefferson Mays in I Am My Own WifeArtifact as Survivor
By Alexis Greene


I Am My Own Wife
By Doug Wright
Playwrights Horizons
416 W. 42nd St.
Box office: (212) 279-4200






The dark eyes of Jefferson Mays glitter ferociously as he stands on the main stage at Playwrights’ Horizons. Costumed in a black peasant dress adorned only with a string of pearls, he portrays a German transvestite named Charlotte von Mahlsdorf in Doug Wright’s new play I Am My Own Wife. Looking at the audience, seeing us see the mesmerizing combination of graceful actor and piercing expression, Mays challenges us, if we can, to uncover the secrets of Charlotte’s private world.

This daring, imaginative performance is the main reason to see Wright’s play, which tries desperately but unsatisfactorily to reveal a fascinating character to us and to himself, and to find a metaphor for survival in her unique story.

Wright, who is probably best known as the author of Quills, a drama about the Marquis de Sade, first met Charlotte in 1992, when she was 65 and still living in Germany, and interviewed her and corresponded with her until she died in 2002. When Lothar Berfelde was in his early teens, Wright learned, a cross-dressing aunt helped the boy discover his true sexual orientation, and Charlotte, a woman with jaw-length blonde hair and massive hands, emerged. At the age of sixteen, according to the play, she murdered her abusive Nazi father, who she believed would have killed her and her mother. Jailed for the crime, she claims to have escaped when the Russians attacked Berlin toward the end of World War II and eventually she moved into a crumbling mansion. There she started collecting Victrolas and gramophones, late-nineteenth-century clocks and furniture, which the play suggests she cherished more than human beings.

The Berlin wall went up, and Charlotte lived in East Berlin in her furniture museum, running a tavern for gay men and women in the basement and keeping the secret police at bay, probably by informing on fellow collectors. When will you marry, her mother asked when Charlotte was around 40. “I am my own wife,” Charlotte told her.

On stage this story unfolds like a documentary. It is an amalgam of excerpts from Wright’s taped interviews, recreations of his own process of self-doubt and partial discovery, and cameos of people in both Charlotte’s world and his own. Mays acts Charlotte and at least 40 other characters, almost always wearing the black dress and pearls but seamlessly changing accents, physical postures and outlooks. By turns he plays the gentle aunt; an angry jailed friend who does not know that Charlotte has betrayed him to the police; an asinine television talk-show host; and most importantly Doug Wright, anxious, caring interviewer and dramatist. Editor as much as playwright, Wright constructs a piece that cuts back and forth between Charlotte and the people she encounters, including himself, sitting in her museum and recording her words on tape.

The elegant production lends the play the freedom it needs. Upstage, scenic designer Derek McLane provides a high wall of shelves stuffed with clocks, tables and vintage record players, lit by David Lander so that the objects glow with a sort of burnished shine.

Downstage, the director Moisés Kaufman puts only an occasional wooden table or cabinet, on which Charlotte sets a Victrola or, in the production’s artful approach to offering a tour of her museum, miniature pieces of furniture. Unfortunately Kaufman paces every sequence similarly, so that the production feels without rhythmic variation.

But exquisite though the production looks, and riveting though Mays is, something is lacking in the play. It is as if Wright became so enveloped by his research that he lost his way. In an interview with Playwrights artistic director Tim Sanford, Wright describes how “the more I discovered about my central character, the more conflicted I became about her very nature. And it became harder and harder and harder to write.” Five years after he began to interview Charlotte, he felt blocked and had not found a dramatic form for his passion.

Ultimately, working with Kaufman and Mays, Wright evolved the play’s current shape. But sitting in the theatre, we yearn for more scenes depicting this unique woman, and fewer showing the writer, no matter how adeptly Mays transforms from one to the other. While breaking through his own creative wall, Wright constructs a barrier of interviews and facts between us and his subject.

Perhaps the barrier is a natural outcome of the playwright’s frustration. As the character of Wright admits more than once, he never penetrates to the heart of the intriguing Charlotte. Never learns what beats beneath the pearls and the black dress. Nor do we. What was her sexual life? Did she even have one? According to a 1992 German documentary, she did, but for some reason Wright excises this vital side of Charlotte’s personality.

Except for a few moments, largely created through the gleaming eyes and open face of the extraordinary Mays, we rarely glimpse this woman’s soul. One glimpse comes when the teen-age Charlotte, dressing in her aunt’s clothes, first looks at herself in a mirror, and we see an instant of recognition and pleasure. Another happens when she describes killing her brutal father.

But mostly, as Wright voices toward the play’s end, Charlotte is like a piece of her beloved collection. “I became this furniture,” she says at one point. In this identification Wright finds a symbol and an answer to how Charlotte survived two murderous political regimes. To us she remains a curiosity--fascinating, but veiled and not quite human.


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