"This modern story is perfection itself" – that is how The New York Times described Kressmann Taylor's novel upon it's publication in 1938, now adapted for the stage by Frank Dunlop.
Its perfection might well owe something to its form: a correspondence between two old friends, an American Jew and his former business partner, a German recently returned to the fatherland. A novella comprised entirely of letters hardly sounds like riveting drama.
But the transatlantic exchange – which charts the growing estrangement of the like-minded pair over the course of 1933 and early 1934 – proves an inspired conceit, showing how political ideology encroaches upon the personal plane.
Soho Theatre's Steve Marmion, who delivered a spectacularly off-beat production of Thomas Eccleshare's Pastoral earlier this month, has woven the correspondence into a compelling two-man show.
The stage is partitioned between their studies – the slick Art Deco lines (complete with a Mondrian painting) of San Francisco-based art dealer Max Eisenstein (Simon Kunz); and Martin's (Jonathan Cullen) more traditional Munich family bureau. The production operates on a synchronised time frame so that we see the recipient's reaction at the same time that the sender pens his letter.
At first the friends' exchange is warm; and the letters are interspersed with jazzy numbers. Max is busy peddling dud Madonnas to vain, rich Jews; while Martin laments the humiliation that the recession has wrought on his homeland and relates his wife's latest pregnancy.
We also learn that he had a liaison with Max's sister, Griselle, a headstrong actress on the Vienna-Berlin circuit (an Ipighenia of sorts). At first Max hardly registers Hitler's rise to power; he attributes Martin's reticence to heavy censorship. But it gradually becomes apparent how complicit Martin is in Hitler's propaganda ("the man is like an electric shock"). Seeking to assure his status, Max becomes anxious to cut off their correspondence, suppling the less-than-gracious caveat, "I have loved you, not because of your race but in spite of it."
Max is dumbfounded by the sudden shift; but when Martin fails to come to Griselle's aid, the tables turn in a remarkable, stage-managed coup de theatre, at which point the audience is less a spectator privy to the exchange, than the reader – since the cryptic letters are intercepted before they reach Martin.
Despite the heavy-duty historical material, the first half of the play is packed with alternately witty and darkly comic lines; and the acting is excellent. Kunz gives a powerful performance of a man who, betrayed, turns to revenge, but for whom catharsis comes at a heavy cost.