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It Takes Two to Tangle

When Seinfeld fans joke ad nauseum that the popular TV show is "about nothing," they mean that the sitcom doesn't have a traditional story hook. There's no overarching premise along the lines of, say, "Widowed dad raises three kids with help from a Japanese housekeeper." But even when a script offers an outrageous setup -- "High-ranking Nazi's wife hires a Jewish concentration camp inmate to be her gardener," for example -- the show may still be about nothing. The Gardens of Frau Hess, the debut work by Milton Frederick Marcus now getting its world premiere at the Caldwell Theatre Company, is a case in point. Unlike Seinfeld's, its nothingness is a sign of trouble.

Set in Germany in the spring of 1944, the play concerns Isaac Baum (Ken Kliban), a onetime professor of horticulture who finds himself plucked out of his concentration camp barracks and deposited in the living room of Frau Hess (Patricia Hodges), wife of Nazi second-in-command Rudolf Hess. (Baum is a fictional character whose story is suggested by wartime correspondence between Hess and Heinrich Himmler.) Through the magic of historical accuracy, Rudolf Hess, who spent much of the war imprisoned in England, is not called on to make an appearance on stage. Rather the play is an uneasy duet between Isaac and Frau Hess.

Early on, Isaac learns that he's the third Jewish botanist to be summoned to the Hess garden since the original caretaker was drafted. You may be wondering what happened to his predecessors. Suffice it to say that even audience members without knowledge of Nazi politics will pick up on the sinister allusions to their fates.

Thus in Frau Hess, on a window-bedecked set suggesting both the living room and dining area of a large estate house, two individuals from hostile universes are forced to negotiate with each other. Looking to save his neck, Isaac must work wonders in the garden and make his employer see him as a human being. The play sets up an ever tougher dramatic arc for the Frau. On the one hand, she's a somewhat sympathetic character who just may be able to help Isaac discover the fate of his daughter, who is also a botanist. On the other hand, she's self-centered, racist, pretentious, and hateful. But long before it deserts the notion that the play might be a Third Reich answer to Driving Miss Daisy (a task even a skilled dramatist would have trouble tackling), Marcus' premise falls in on itself; a conceptual greenhouse, it's undone by the mass of unwieldy ideas tangled within.

Marcus doesn't help matters by introducing the subject of the Office of Vegetative Mapping, which, according to the production notes, was an actual Nazi institution. The idea behind this sordid bureaucracy, as Frau Hess explains it to Isaac, is that "in the name of the Fatherland, we have to tear up one of the most beautiful gardens" in Europe and replace its sophisticated hybrids with plants of "good German stock." As far as metaphors go, the Office of Vegetative Mapping delivers a particularly crude smack. Its heavy-handedness is made even more clumsy by dialogue in which Isaac points out that the garden's underlying problem is not hybridization but "an indigenous rot."

This leafy symbolism takes on a life of its own, and plants sprout on stage with annoying frequency. While the metaphor is dropped early on, Marcus replaces it with a number of just-as-wobbly themes presented in almost breathtaking succession, none of which lingers long enough to cause anything more than a sensation. Among them: the notions that both Jews and Nazis interpret history to their own liking, that randomly selected representatives of the two groups have things to teach each other, and that a lonely female Nazi and a widowed male concentration camp inmate must surely be sexually attracted to each other. There's not a speck of emotional truth in these ideas, at least as they're presented here. But all the same, we learn that Isaac has, at one point, rejected his Jewish identity and that Frau Hess has defied the Nazis by rescuing some of the "degenerate" artworks famously condemned by Hitler and company.

In a play overflowing with cliches, it's no surprise that Frau Hess adores Wagner and obsessively plays his works on her Victrola. But nothing prepares us for the idea that she'll desert opera in favor of a tango in order to seduce Isaac. And, in the service of an even more impenetrable metaphor, Frau Hess uses a childhood memory of an experience with incest as a launching point for a discussion of Freudian psychology.

Confused? You should be. Despite the play's provocative premise, Frau Hess need not serve up a confrontation between captor and captive. In fact, dramas about the Holocaust and other large-scale tragedies really shouldn't offer resolution. (Although, in this case, it would be more than satisfying to see the clueless Frau Hess get her comeuppance. Her response to Isaac saying that his wife died "on the trains" is to ask if the woman was sick.) What's essential with works like Frau Hess is to offer audiences a well-defined sense of what question or questions the play is trying to explore. To do anything else is to exploit the pairing of these two characters and the individuals upon whom they are loosely based.

Understanding Marcus' motivations isn't easy. Aside from this play, his body of produced work consists of ads and TV commercials he helped put together as the creative director of various advertising agencies. Getting inside the Caldwell production, directed by John Henry Davis, is even harder. As Frau Hess, Hodges is trapped inside a character who is more caricature than anything else. While Hodges is a strong actress, the menagerie of mannerisms she uses to indicate that Hess is German eclipses what little individuality she has. And, as Isaac, Kliban is playing a character who could be any Jewish botanist locked in a concentration camp. Unfortunately that's the way the part was written. Sam Kitchin has two walk-on scenes as Franz, Frau Hess' butler. His second scene displays the production's one deft directing touch: As Franz exits the Hess residence, he does so with the household silver in his pocket.

Probably no amount of invention can salvage what's ultimately an ill-conceived drama, but one wishes that Davis had overseen the production more thoughtfully. Instead he allows Frau Hess to show Isaac pictures on the fourth wall (the imaginary wall between stage and audience), when moments earlier she'd indicated that the same wall was open to the garden.

Elsewhere on Narelle Sissons' set, Rudolf Hess' leather flight jacket hangs carelessly on the back of a chair, as though its owner had gone off to war and left it behind. And the on-stage space needs to be defined in such a way that allows audiences to accept that a shower, a greenhouse ladder, and secret hiding places can all spring up or appear from under the living room floor. Without attention to these details, the play really does seem to be about nothing at all.

The Gardens of Frau Hess. Written by Milton Frederick Marcus. Directed by John Henry Davis. Starring Patricia Hodges, Ken Kliban, and Sam Kitchin. Through April 5 at the Caldwell Theatre Company, 7873 N. Federal Hwy., Boca Raton, 561-241-7432.

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Robin Dougherty

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