April 22, 1999
Reviews of “The Envoy” and “Hitler’s Head”
Swiss Mistakes Acknowledged in 'The Envoy'
"You can't confront evil on its own ground without becoming part of it," muses diplomat Heinrich Zwygart in "The Envoy," and his self-recognition clearly applies to Switzerland, the country he represented faithfully in Berlin during the six years of World War II.
Zwygart's job was to implement the "Swiss doctrine," which is never defined in the play, but alludes to the country's policy of collaborating economically and financially with Nazi Germany to forestall an invasion or economic strangulation.
He did his job well. He hobnobbed with Hitler at Berchtesgaden, promised von Ribbentrop food supplies and war planes in the waning days of the Third Reich, and, in the line of duty, slept with the wives of high-ranking Nazis.
Zwygart returns to his home after the fall of Berlin, expected to be hailed as a hero and savior of his country. Instead, he learns that his superiors at the foreign ministry have chosen him as the fall guy for their collaborationist wartime policy, and consigned him to permanent non-person status.
Swiss playwright Thomas Hurlimann plants "The Envoy" in a pure Kafkaesque milieu, in which Zwygart never sees or meets his accusers. Instead, in generally effective but occasionally wearying marathon monologues, he addresses his defense to a bug planted in the chandelier of his living room.
Alternately begging and defying his unseen and unheard superior, Zwygart unravels as he gradually builds the case against himself, all the while desperately trying to escape the trap.
In his thrashing about, he even considers enlisting the support of a wealthy Jew, whose jewels and paintings he apparently helped save from the Nazis, only to recall regretfully that the man perished in the Holocaust.
As presented at the Marilyn Monroe Theatre in West Hollywood, the intermission-less play ratchets up the tension under the sure direction of the 99-year-old "wunderalte," Martin Magner.
In the capable cast, in which Josh Welsh essays the title role, and Erinn Strain his sister, veteran actor Curt Lowens stands out as the envoy's blind father.
But the play impresses most for its political courage. Playwright Hurlimann has dared to indict not only his country's politicians, but Switzerland's most sacred institution, its citizen army.
Through Zwygart's mouth, Hurlimann almost contemptuously dismisses the cherished Swiss belief that its small army forestalled a Nazi invasion, granting at most that it "shot some refugees."
The second award for civil courage goes to the local Swiss consulate, which not only brought the play to the director's attention, but, with Germany's Goethe Institute, is the official sponsor of the production.
"The Envoy" plays Friday and Saturday evenings, through May 22, at the Marilyn Monroe Theatre of the Lee Strasberg Creative Center, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd. For tickets, call (323) 660-8587.
Hitler's Head Shows its Face By Naomi Pfefferman, Entertainment Editor