The Germans in Paris
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
January 7, 2007
Jonathan Leaf's new play The Germans in Paris takes a potentially intriguing backdrop—that of 1840s Parisian cultural life—and makes it inexplicably tedious. The main characters are actual historical figures: the romantic poet Heinrich Heine, composer Richard Wagner, and the philosopher/revolutionary Karl Marx. But, the play doesn't focus on any one particular moment from their lives, nor does it seem all that interested in making some thematic point about them. Leaf seems more taken with the overall mood and lifestyle of the period, which may be interesting in its own right, but is too dramatically vague to hold center stage.
The story concerns...well, that's where the trouble starts. I can't say exactly what the story is about, even though a lot happens. Heine and Marx get involved in a pair of pistol duels (Heine goes through with his; Marx does not). Marx also gets thrown in jail, but for reasons that aren't made clear. Madame Fenel, the sister of Heine's mistress, has influence that could help free Marx, but what that influence is goes unexplained. Then there's the spy who Heine, Marx, and Wagner suspect has infiltrated their cell (to which I could respond, "What cell?"—it goes unanswered). When it's finally revealed that Heine himself is the spy (he's a police informant) no reason is given for why he's doing it, or what information he's gathering.
Then, there's the subplot involving Heine's mistress, Madame Morisot, a woman of high social standing whom he dumps to marry the more common Mathilde. There are hurt feelings, stoically expressed recriminations, a bout of syphilis, and even a flirtation between Heine and Madame Fenel. What all of this is supposed to add up to, however, is beyond me.
Whether he's intended to do so or not, Leaf has structured The Germans in Paris almost anecdotally: the events of the play, while loosely connected, feel as if they almost have nothing to do which each other, especially from one scene to the next. Every time the lights come up, the audience is thrust into a self-contained world that bears little relation to the one they just saw.
Director James Milton guides The Germans in Paris with an uncertain hand. As directed, the actors come across as flat, intoning their lines with a thoughtful gravitas that permeates every aspect of their one-note performances, and the production falls victim to the same casualness that infects the writing. Nothing here seems important—or, everything occupies the same level of importance. With such a uniform level of sameness throughout, it's easy for the audience to tune out.
The only member of the cast who rises above the situation around her is Angelica Torn. As Madame Morisot, she brings fiery life to her role and to every scene she is in. The rest of the cast looks especially wan next to her, and she is sorely missed whenever she's offstage.
All in all, The Germans in Paris is a complete puzzlement. Its disparate story elements contain the raw materials for a very fine play, but playwright Leaf ignores them in favor of something more nebulous. Whatever he's after, I hope he has better luck expressing it next time.