‘Camp Siegfried,’ a Review of the Second Stage Production
Did you know that in the 1930s the Nazis ran propaganda summer camps for youngsters, like the one in Yaphank, on Long Island New York and elsewhere across the United States? Camp Siegfried was created by the German-American Bund, led by Fritz Kuhn to sway various Americans to support Germany in its bid to overthrow Communism, Judism and “corrupt” liberalism in Europe and elsewhere in the world. Considering that there was a large German immigrant population in the United States, the Nazi Party’s idea of propagandizing United States German citizens toward the benefits of Nazism in support of Hitler’s Germany was a sound one.
Bess Wohl’s titular play about Camp Siegfried falls short of powerfully dramatizing the true nature and danger of such Nazi camps that were pro-Hitler retreats sponsored by German loyalists. Wohl’s Camp Siegfried, a two hander “romance among the Nazis” directed by David Cromer is currently running at 2ndStage with no intermission. Unfortunately, the production lacks dynamism, terror and moment in its attempt to reveal the gradual inculcation of Nazi doctrine in the minds of the protagonists.
Wohl’s attempt not to give too much away proves damaging to the overall impact of the play. What should be directly energized and dramatized in the Nazi Party’s will to dominate, never really comes across. The only time it does is when a speech is proclaimed by She (Lily McInerny’s graduated intensity works well) and only because of the added response to the speech. It becomes the high point because of canned cheering which increases as the venom and hatred increases in She’s speech, spoken in German. (There are no super-titles, so German is an imperative if you want to understand it.) But by the time that speech arrives, so much more could have been done to incisively reveal the sub rosa impact of the brainwashing on the teens that should be terrifying but isn’t. The play’s overall effect lands with a thud as do its themes which are muddled.
This camp and others in New York stoked the fervency for the 1939 Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden which was protested by those against Hitler’s fascism. The camps were considered egregious and they were shut down. Camp Siegfried’s propagandizing was greater than what Wohl’s play suggests in her attempt to portray the interactions between the teens. This is a missed opportunity especially for us during this time of growing white nationalism in our culture which needs to be called out for its violent hatefulness. Those who proudly display swastikas should not be greeted with smiles and pats on the back. Such acceptance is consent and grows toward hate crimes. And if the symbols of Nazism are understated, or treated as non existent as in Wohl’s play, that is an inconvenient misdirection. Not revealing the typical abundance of signage used by the Nazi Party loyalists in the US camps is questionable and removes the play’s chilling effect.
Hitler and Goebbel’s propaganda was steeped in occult symbolism. The Nazis believed in the power of the Swastika in their flags, insignias, their specially designed uniforms which conveyed “majesty” and fear in their intent to show dominance and preeminence. To suggest subtly how one might be seduced into wickedness without showing the associated “signs” of how that wickedness is conveyed is problematic. This is especially so when Camp Siegfried’s name is used, but the power of Nazi will and their purpose for the camp in this play, appears expositionally without menace until the very end, and as a result, seems random and confused.
The camp is seen through the perspectives of these teens as an OK place where they can have sexual fun, abuse each other verbally and physically and learn “stuff.” That they they are propagandized into one of the greatest, evil political belief systems of 1938 on the eve of Hitler’s invasion of Poland after annexing Austria is momentous. That sense of moment is intentionally mitigated because only part of the story at the camp is conveyed by the teens. For me, that is a weakness in the play’s structure in addition to its dependence, not on dramatic dialogue, but on exposition. Dynamic drama is missing. For example She’s visit to the doctor, if activated with an actual visit instead of as exposition, the weight of the camp’s abuse would be made more powerful by the doctor’s direct comments. Additionally, drama might have been conveyed via a different, more visceral examination of the camp reflected in scenic design and lighting design. Costume design and sound design succeed best at conveying the sinister symbols of Nazism at the camp but only during She’s speech and in He’s costume after he joins her when she is finished.
Depending upon the resources one looks up, in 1938 in this camp and others, those at the camp dressed in Nazi uniforms and drilled military-style with marching, inspections, and flag-raising ceremonies. Swastika flags were situated next to the American flag. However, since Wohl’s play involves a two character limitation of the nameless He (Johnny Berchtold) and She (Lily McInerny), there are no other “campers” to show this “glory” of Hitler that the camp Nazis uplift. There are no portraits of Hitler, though there supposedly were at the real camp.
We only see the camp exterior. Brett J. Banakis’ scenic design creates the naturalistic set of a hillside and wooden fence-like wall abutting the camp. When He and She put together a platform that is later used for She’s speech, there are no swastikas, pictures or flags draping it, though there is canned cheering. The effects of what the climax of that speech might have been thematically and viscerally are diminished because the key symbolism of Hitler’s Nazi propaganda is absent. A sinister aspect is only suggested in the canned cheering in what sounds like a Nazi rally in 1930s Germany.
In Wohl’s Camp Siegfried, much is expositional; much is ancillary. We hear Hitler and Goebbel’s names mentioned as streets in the camp. We hear that the teens must do the work and if they are injured, they must suffer through it and be strong. She discusses the symbolism of the name Siegfried which she has learned and she tries to learn German. He chops wood for the all night bonfires; no workers from labor unions are allowed as unions were thought to have Jews (a reference He makes). The discriminatory aspects of this are downplayed. As he chops wood they get to know one another and more things are revealed about the camp. For example She reports various girls brag about having sex with specific boys.
That the young men and women are being encouraged to “breed” and create Aryan replicas is unconnected to Nazism and the import of the activity is skewed. In one segment while He masterbates masochistically, She sadistically belittles and demeans him to be worthless. Their activity is disjointed and we are led to believe that their behavior isn’t connected with what the intentioned propaganda of the camp toward young men and women is. In some scenes after they couple, She demonstrates pride in telling He about her pregnancy. Her pregnancy is a lie, learned propaganda and manipulation. Wohl’s He and She fall in line with the learned camp behaviors out of gross inferiority and shyness. However, the characters are shallowly drawn and lack emotional grist. They are not easy to empathize with and thus, their indoctrination has less of an impact on the overall themes and conclusion which ends hollowly.
In the source material Camp Siegfried’s grounds had Nazi and Hitler Youth flags and pictures of Adolf Hitler. Men were photographed in uniforms (Italian Fascist-style blackshirts, SA-style brownshirts and Nazi military uniforms. It is arguable whether it is more frightening to see a sexual relationship between two teenagers budding against a background of Nazi flags whipping in the wind next to American flags, or an absence of them as if they don’t exist. However, in their absence, the danger and horror of what Camp Siegfried symbolized for that time and what its exploration through the teens’ eyes intimates for our time is lessened to the point that one wonders why the titular camp was selected and its purpose downplayed as an artifice. There is no visceral imagery or camp life that is believable and too much exposition gets in the way of the dynamic dramatic.
When He and She first meet on a back wall of the camp hillside, He tells She about the camp activities which include marching. If the “power” and “glory” of Hitler’s propaganda spectacle was manifest each day with the signage and Swastika flags, without learned revulsion, then Nazification would have drawn He and She in large part through the spectacle of such symbols that the adults at the camp salute to and venerate. But that which was a huge part of the symbolism used to bring unity, awe and fear by the Nazi Party and German loyalists, who use the camp to train future Nazi leaders, is absent. The audience is never allowed in to the camp and what they hear isn’t enough to make a difference because it is never activated or visualized.
The only events actualized concern their sexual relationship, the wood chopping, the platform building and the speech. All should have more than a slim thread of the Nazi connections but they don’t until the last two minutes of the play and only through exposition. Otherwise this would be a typical summer camp (it isn’t). We follow two teens (the actors in their Broadway debut make the best of their roles) and their relationship. She gives a speech with a Nazi salute that reveals her indoctrination. And the purpose of the camp is revealed with her description of what she’s been through to the doctor. We only find that out because she tells He.
Wohl conveys the focus of the camp in a gradual sub rosa way via exposition and He’s behaviors. Unconnected to the other camp members or activities, the action is unclear as to the extent it is unfair and cruel (until at the conclusion She reports how the doctor defined what happened at the camp as a delusion). Likewise, another activity He engages in is archery. But its importance as potential discipline and military training is muted as are all the actions we see the teens undertake. However, in reality camp activities are organized to make future Nazi leaders in the US to run for political office, to unify German Americans, and place them in leadership roles to dominate in coherence with Hitler’s Third Reich.
This is hinted at via exposition and reportage at the end of the play when She reports to He that she went to a doctor outside the camp after He has beaten her badly. When she tells the doctor why she’s so cut up, revealing the camp’s abusive treatment in addition to He’s beating, the doctor (an outsider) tells her, “Anyone can be seduced.” And he follows this with, “Never underestimate your infinite capacity for delusion.” As she reports this to He, the spell is broken. She tells He they were both caught up in the delusion. He doesn’t accept what she says and tells her that Herr Kuhn has invited him to Germany and he will meet the higher ups and join the “worldwide fight.” This important scene with the doctor is reduced to exposition, yet it is what changes her mind about the camp.
Anything that might strike horror for us today is not shown. This seems misguided and changes the thrust of the play, whitewashing it. There is nothing benign about a Nazi Swastika flag next to the American flag which was pictured at the real Camp Siegfried. The play’s camp carries the title, but the substance and meaning are squeezed out of it. Thus, the lure of the propaganda which should be terrifying to us because we know what is behind it, never finds emotional power or effect. The forward movement becomes some teens playing at sex and being adults and searching out each other with a backdrop at a camp that we hear appreciates the Nazi Party, Hitler, teaches German, has all-night rallies and marches. The culmination occurs when She delivers a speech and lifts her hand in the Sieg Heil salute and feels pleased with herself but reverses after her discussion with the doctor.
It may be horrific to have a Nazi Swastika onstage with other Nazi paraphernalia, but that horror is real and signifies something beyond just the freedom to express it. More might have been done to reveal the iconography of the Nazi party that was propagandizing the teens at the camp since it was such iconography that swelled German pride during that period of time in Germany and during the 1939 Nazi Party rally at Madison Square Garden.
Thus, the play never rises to the dramatic moments of danger and fear that Wohl might have brought to bear during our time that again sees the rise of white nationalism in our country, and on Long Island. There, on Long Island, the KKK, confederate flags and white nationalistic Holocaust Denier T-Shirts have been seen in allegedly patriotic parades and boat regattas supporting Donald Trump, a proponent of White Nationalism (think Nazis) and anti-democratic insurrections. Not to include the symbols or uniforms as they were used at the real Camp Siegfried, when white nationalism threatens our very democratic institutions is problematic.
At the Capitol on January 6th, there are pictures of Holocaust deniers proudly wearing T-shirts proclaiming that 6 million more should have been killed. This occurred during an insurrection that intended to nullify our constitution and install a despotic, white nationalist, who decries not indecency, bigotry, anti-semisitism, racism and hatred, but anyone who criticizes him. This is a time when a known Holocaust denier went to Mar-a-Lago, a few days ago, the place once referred to as the Southern White House. Actions and words carry great meaning.
The Nazis gently referred to and mildly presented in this play via exposition were essentially absent. Especially absent are key symbols of Nazi propaganda that the Nazi Party used for their potent and clever manipulation to sway the minds of Germans. Their non-appearance in the play is definitely a teachable moment. Likewise, the decision to omit these dramatic elements carefully constructed by the Nazi Party to excite and unify, in a play about Nazi allurements, also is a teachable moment. Their absence is silence.
Camp Siegfried runs with no intermission at https://cart.2st.com/events
‘Grand Horizons,’ a Ferociously Funny Vision of Senior Redefinition, Starring Jane Alexander and James Cromwell
At last! There’s a new and improved perspective of “seniorhood” that doesn’t include steps up the ladder of infirmity and dementia: from independent living to the “Rose Court,” from memory care to the palliative slip-away into Hospice. Indeed, as we appreciate and glory over the vibrant humor and comedic power of situation and characters in Bess Wohl’s Grand Horizons, we learn a thing or two about “old folks” and “the younger generation” in this rollicking yet profound play.
First, age is attitude. Second, the older one becomes, the more one must think outside of the box, especially out of the type found in replicated, independent living housing. Third, the closer one gets to the “end,” the more one should “rage against the dying of the light.” Fourth, one can experience in one’s later years a vision of life that is freeing, one that destroys the cages we created our entire lives: for they are a mere facsimile of living. Indeed, contrary to seniors who settle for the cardboard, cookie-cutter artificiality of existence in vegetative, pre-fabricated places like Grand Horizons, Wohl reveals that it is possible to make life-affirming changes even at the age of 80 years-old as does her protagonist, Nancy, the amazing Jane Alexander.
The playwright’s brilliant script is cleverly paced by Leigh Silverman’s precise direction of the superb ensemble. Masters of the comedy of real, of humor springing from grounded, soulful authenticity, the actors led by Jane Alexander and James Crowmwell pop the quips, jokes, one-liners, twists and turns of phrase and mood to keep the audience laughter rolling in waves of joy. Wohl’s well-crafted writing absolutely sings with comedic grace and profound themes, sharply channeled by Silverman. These include the importance of breaking through the stereotypical concepts of aging, family, parenting, marriage, love, intimacy, individuality and autonomy.
The play’s situation is common enough. Nancy and Bill, a “typical,” retired, fifty-year married couple have taken the next steps toward their journey’s end by moving into an independent senior living community. Is it the replication of row after row of modestly, flimsily built homes in a vast similitude (Bryce Cutler’s projection design) that sets off Nancy? Or perhaps what triggers her is the whitewashed, pleasant kitchen/dining nook/living room interior of “peaceful” uniformity (Clint Ramos’ set design) though it is festooned by artificial greenery.
We learn later in a profound and symbolic irony, that the lovely plants don’t even have the opportunity to die bio-dynamically as a result of Nancy’s over or under watering. They just go on and on and on in lifeless “eternity.” Nancy’s eyes open to their fake permanence later in the play, after she has confronted herself, her children and Bill with the truth. Her ironic comment about their artificiality has to do with the realizations of her own growth.
The vast sterility of this community is only heightened by the play’s opening of Nancy’s and Bill’s dinner that is choreographed to reveal a mutually synchronized preparation that they execute silently with near robotic precision. Well, enough is enough in this perfect haven of deadness. I could hear Nancy’s thoughts as she looked at Bill as they, with synced movements in unison, took out their napkins, then began to drink and eat. What more could anyone their age wish want? They appear to have it all. But is this the exuberance of life we wish for?
At this point Alexander’s Nancy lets the desires of her heart explode from her lips and the train moves onto the express track and doesn’t stop until she achieves what she wants, sort of, by the play’s end. Jane Alexander’s delivery of the opening lines of conflict are spot-on humorous and ominous: “I think I want a divorce.”
The excitement of what Nancy envisions to be on her grand horizon for the future is in imagining its open-ended possibilities, even if it is merely sitting in a restaurant and enjoying a meal by herself. Clearly, she wants no more imprisonment by the chains of coupling. She wants to know her own power, strength and autonomy apart from defining herself as Bill’s wife. As the play progresses, we discover she has already established her autonomy away from her family, though she has kept it secret. Interestingly, perhaps as a long awaited response, Bill is striking out on his own in this senior community by taking stand up comedy classes and enjoying a relationship with Carla (Priscilla Lopez). We learn later that this may be his response to what he has known all along of Nancy’s secrets.
As these details are gradually revealed we enjoy watching the incredulous sons, Brian (the wonderfully funny Michael Urie) and Ben (Ben McKenzie is the harried lawyer control freak who can’t relax). Both are shattered by the announcement of the divorce. Ironically, they don’t want their parents to leave their comfortable “mom” and “dad” roles to be individuals, redefining who they want to be. They want stasis, not for their parents’ happiness but for their own comfort and assurance. Brian’s and Ben’s perceptions of their parents living apart from each other are at odds with their parents’ expectations. For Nancy and Bill divorce will be a positive experience. The sons cannot wrap their heads around this, especially that Nancy is planning to live in an Air Bnb. Their mom in an Air BnB: a horror!
Wohl takes advantage of this set-up in a refreshing way. In an ironic reversal, with the help of Jess (Ashley Park) Ben’s wife, Brian and Ben don the parental roles. They attempt to gauge what has recently happened, as they try to square away what mom and dad must do to resurrect the bloom on their long-dead marriage. Their failed attempts are humorous. Adroitly, the actors bounce off each of their characters’ stress-filled emotions with peppery dynamism and wit.
Brian’s neediness is easily identifiable throughout and is integral to his character as a theater teacher who creates 200 characters in The Crucible so “no kid will be left behind to feel left out.” It is Brian who is so dislocated by his parents’ future divorce, he worries about where he will spend Thanksgiving which is six months away. His sensitivity exceeds his parents’ emotionalism. The dichotomy is hysterical, yet heartfelt.
Ben’s eczema flares as he attempts to take control of where each of his parents will live. And then there is Jess providing the counseling so Nancy and Bill can return to their once affectionate times with each other. With Ben and Brian looking on with hope at Jess’ powers, the results that follow are riotous. As their visit with Bill and Nancy to persuade them not to divorce lengthens, Jess begins to look at her relationship with Ben differently as he reverts to Bill and Nancy’s son. Where has her husband gone or is this just hormones because she is pregnant?
The resistance of the younger generation to the divorce is a powerful obstacle which the parents find impossible to answer to their children’s’ satisfaction. It provides conflicts among the characters from which Wohl tweaks and teases thematic tropes. What are the phases and stages of our lives? How do we define them apart from cultural stereotypes and familiar roles that appear to offer comfort, but are actually binding and nullifying? What price do we pay to create our families and sacrifice for children with expectations that are unreasonable, or worse, false? From parenting to aging, no one can provide a guideline for what to do that will resonate completely with our individual lives. Every family, every person in that family is different. We fail, but perhaps it is worth it because we learn and if we are open to it, we heal.
Nancy’s desire for a divorce sets the entire family roiling except for Bill, who appears to remain calm. Of course Wohl is always pushing the envelope to get the maximum surprise and intrigue from her characters, who remain interesting and intensely human.
The audience’s gales of laughter organically spring from Nancy’s revelations that she has pursued her desires and dreams despite the intrusions of raising her two sons and making a home for her husband Bill. Indeed, the mother they believed she was, is not who she presented herself to be. She had another love. And when she expresses the importance of her closeness and intimacy with this lover to Brian (Urie brings down the house with his responses to her sexual descriptions) in the hope of explaining why she is leaving Bill, he cannot cope with understanding that his mother is perhaps a woman first.
This is something many children have difficulty with unless the parents, with good will and flexibility, help them to understand love, sexuality and intimacy. Bill and Nancy never considered going into these discussions with Brian and Ben because they never went there with each other. It is a telling irony that catches up with all of them at this juncture.
Clearly, Nancy runs deep as does Bill, who is a cypher that Wohl reveals by the conclusion, when we learn that both Bill and Nancy have kept intimacies and secrets to themselves. Yet, they do love one another. The humor and pathos come when we note how difficult it is for Ben and Brian to understand their parent’s particularities when they believed the packaged family meme that “togetherness is happiness.” That meme when they admit it, satisfied none of them, least of all their parents.
All of this eventually tumbles out after Brian, Ben and Jess visit, stay and don’t leave until Bill and Nancy politely tell them to go and reassure them that they are going to be all right. By the end of the play, Wohl opens the door to hope. Even if they live apart, maybe Bill and Nancy can begin to see each other outside of the roles that threatened to box them in “til death did them part.”
Grand Horizons is a mixture of uproarious fun and thoughtful poignance. Shepherded by Leigh Silverman’s vision the actors deliver, with sterling performances by Alexander and Cromwell and with high marks for McKenzie, Urie, Park and in secondary roles as Tommy (Maulik Pancholy) and Carla (Priscilla Lopez). Additional kudos to the creative team: Clint Ramos (scenic design) Linda Cho (costume design) Jen Schriever (lighting design) Palmer Hefferan (sound design) Bryce Cutler (production design).
Grand Horizons runs with one intermission at Second Stage Theater, The Helen Hayes Theater on 44th Street between 7th and 8th until March 1. For tickets and times to this LOL production CLICK HERE.