Review: Intellectual ‘Watch on the Rhine’ is heavy on text, timely in its urgency

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The Muller family, including (ront row, l to r) Bodo (Jonah Horowitz), Babette (Emma Curtin), Kurt (Elijah Alexander), (back row) Sara (Sarah Agnew) and Joshua (Silas Sellnow) ponder their next move in Berkeley Rep’s “Watch on the Rhine,” playing at the Roda Theatre through Jan. 14th. (Photo by Kevin Berne)

It takes very little time to see where “Watch on the Rhine” is headed. Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s newest drama, penned by American theatre great Lillian Hellman, is truly a throwback to older plays that harbor thought and intellect. This is not a play of actions that careen off the stage and into your psyche. It is a play that is wondrous in its ideas, philosophies, and ultimately, dangerous choices that lead to challenging consequences.

Hellman’s 1941 response to fascism is present in every aspect of the play, and feels eerily timely. What really works here, smartly directed by the Rep’s associate director Lisa Peterson, is how it moves at a consistent pace, accentuating strongly some of the larger moments of tension. All of this takes place on a meticulously gorgeous set by Neil Patel, with glitz and glamour and crown molding everywhere, and ceilings that seem to go somewhere.

As Fanny (Caitlin O’Connell) waits anxiously for her daughter and her family to arrive, the tension takes off early with a dangerous attraction between the countess Marthe (Kate Guentzel) and Fanny’s son David (Hugh Kennedy). As Marthe and her fascist-following husband Teck (Jonathan Walker) will be forced out of Fanny’s house soon, Fanny’s daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren make their way to the house.

What is striking about the arrival is how beaten down the family is when they finally show up. They seem to be in a constant state of resignation, people without a country, yet the children do not come across as wishing they were anywhere but supporting their parents. And while the family would not turn down a hot meal, their struggles together make their circumstances so much more tolerable.

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Tension is thick within the troubled marriage of Marthe (Kate Guentzel) and the Count Teck (Jonathan Walker). (Photo by Kevin Berne)

What Peterson does well is build tension within her talented collection of performers. While there is plenty in the play that is downright funny, often led by the sardonic wit of Fanny, the scripts balance is wonderful in the sense that it knows how to hunker down and work.

Take Kurt Muller for example, played with impressive range by Elijah Alexander. What he does so well is balance between moments where he must begin to plan for his next move based on his precarious position, but also when he needs to show his family deep love. And ultimately, when his life-changing decision results from a powerful 15 final minutes that turns frenetic, his decision and the reaction from his family make it feel as if they clearly understand that there’s a higher calling, and great hope for an uncertain future.

The chemistry between Kurt and his passionately supportive wife Sara, magnificently played by Sarah Agnew, is palpable. They are a couple that understands that the tough choices they make are necessary because those choices are much bigger than them.

So much of what Walker’s Count Teck does is extremely interesting. This is not an interpretation overloaded with big choices, but one that is much more focused on matter-of-fact confidence. When Teck shares a secret and an ultimatum that horrifies Fanny and the rest of the family, notice how Teck just sits and shares, a picture of confidence that is not smug, but content in the fact that the deck is heavily stacked in his favor.

“Watch on the Rhine” will certainly not tickle everyone’s fancy. It does not always have the urgency of “The Children’s Hour” or a morally corrupt quartet of folks like those in “The Little Foxes.” And there are moments where the play plods too much. But where this play works is how it compels through the 150 minutes that it moves through space. Even during the five-minute break, characters ponder the choices that will make or break them.

The play may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But based on how timely this play is in our current state of affairs, it probably should be.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Berkeley Repertory Theatre, in a co-production with the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, presents, “Watch on the Rhine”
Written by Lillian Hellman
Directed by Lisa Peterson
The Word: A highly intellectual play that is classic Hellman – colorful characters, biting humor and dangerous situations driven by a talented ensemble cast.
Stars: 4 out of 5
Through Jan. 14th
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, plus one 15-minute intermission and a 5-minute pause
The Roda Theatre
Tickets range from $30 – $97
The Roda Theatre at Berkeley Rep
2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA
Tickets range from $30 – $97
For tickets, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org

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