The only thing funny about Playing Leni is that Madhouse Theater Company, in its first major engagement, is marketing the play as a black comedy. In doing so, it discolors the fabric of this tightly written, sometimes tense, and generally commanding work.
There's nothing funny about Playing Leni, and much to admire. It starts strangely, but the pieces fit together; five minutes after you wonder why the acting seemed so stilted, it makes sense.
The play is by David Robson and the founder of Madhouse, John Stanton. The company has been around for a decade, producing late-night shows and short runs, and takes a big step with Playing Leni, which runs over 11 days at a visible Center City venue, the Adrienne.
That step is on firm ground. Although the drama doesn't begin to fit Madhouse's stated dedication "to the funny and the bizarre," who cares? It sure is good theater.
Playing Leni is about the German actress and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, who died at 101 eight years ago and was Hitler's favorite movie director. If the play has a fault, it lies in its insularity - you should know who Riefenstahl was, and how important she was to the Third Reich as a propagandist, to fully appreciate Playing Leni.
Robson and Stanton attempt to set up her impact in the first few minutes, but not successfully; whatever we learn about her from the script flies by with little sticking power. A sheet in the program paints a clear portrait of her in three paragraphs and sets the play in a solid context - but if you have to read about it beforehand, is it theater or an assignment?
Still, Playing Leni works on a basic level with an uninformed audience, as a play about a captive and her captor, and the way each sees different sides of a story in the high-strung situation.
Riefenstahl was arrested in 1945 and freed three years later, never convicted of a thing. The play begins with that arrest, as an American soldier (Robert DaPonte) is coaxing the defiant, haughty Riefenstahl (Amanda Grove) from her Austrian home so he can turn her in.
But she has co-opted him to let her make a film about her arrest and trip to detention - a fiction on the playwrights' part that works both as a plot and as a device for making points about her role in the war.
Was she really Hitler's pinup girl and political ally? Or was she exploiting him to increase her fame and respect? Or was she forced to make his propaganda films, and afraid for her own life if she didn't? Riefenstahl's fuzzy personal narrative is a cover for motives and a solid driver of defense mechanisms. In real life, she said she had filmed grand Nazi marches and the like simply to document the truth as it was at the time.
Joshua L. Schulman's precise projection design includes pieces of those films, as well as roadside scenes that back the two actors on their car trip to Riefenstahl's detainment, making the effect real. Brett Cassidy's fight choreography is key, and Seth Reichgott's direction ties the play seamlessly together.
Grove and DaPonte, the two solid actors, make a complex job look easy. Each builds a rich character whose different facets shine.
Presented by Madhouse Theater Company at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St., through June 11. Tickets: $15-$25. Information: 267-571-9623 or www.madhousetheater.org.EndText