An early flashback to 1913 in Adroit Maneuvers takes place at the famous Vienna coffeehouse Cafe Central, where a man is painting outside. Frau Dinger, a young Jewish mother, is impressed by the artist's work and invites him in for coffee. After lamenting his rejection from art school, he sells Dinger the painting. But he soon becomes enraged when he discovers Dinger and her daughter, Tilde, are Jewish.
The temperamental artist is Adolf Hitler. Twenty years after his interaction with Dinger, he will have built the Third Reich. His virulent ravings, which once got him rejected from polite society, will be delivered from the balcony of the Hofburg palace to thousands of cheering supporters.
Adroit Maneuvers, a new play by Michael Bertish, examines how fascism takes root. The story is told from the perspective of Tilde (Diane Kondrat) and describes how the gradual erosion of basic human rights leads to violence and genocide.
At the beginning of the play, Tilde is an elderly woman. The year is 1995—five decades after Tilde's escape from Europe to New York. Her grandson Micky (Morgan Lee) is visiting from Seattle to learn her story, which, to this point, she has been reluctant to tell. Micky questions his grandmother with prosecutorial relentlessness. She evades and teases him, but eventually divulges nuggets from her past. The play alternates between past and present, between New York and Vienna, where Tilde and her lover Max were members of the resistance. Kondrat's and Lee's strong performances as Tilde and Micky, and their chemistry as grandmother and grandson, are distinct highlights of the play.
The first hour of Adroit Maneuvers is subtle, thought-provoking and full of rich character development. Flashbacks show the takeover of fascism in Weimar-era Vienna—as people are taken away and violently questioned by secret police, Jewish citizens are forced to wear the Star of David, and a young painter is transformed into a hatemongering dictator.
About halfway through, however, the play loses focus on what makes it successful and begins chasing storylines that seem irrelevant. The first scene after intermission, for instance, is dominated by two unexpected new characters: Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. Tilde is friends with the two iconic thinkers—but she is now an afterthought. For reasons unexplained, Einstein and Freud have huge roles in the second half of the play. The three characters' friendship during this period is an interesting premise, but it feels secondary to an already fully baked play about Tilde and Micky. The plot shift serves only to convolute a good thing.
Adroit Maneuvers is two and a half hours long, with a 20-minute intermission. A play pushing three hours in length needs to be airtight in the manner it tells its story, or risk making the audience wonder if elements could have been cut. Sadly, that's what happens: a promising first half spoiled by a bloated second half. Still, there is a lot to appreciate about this play, in the acting, staging and writing. Unfortunately, it may be remembered as one you wanted to like more than you did.
SEE IT: Adroit Maneuvers is at Imago Theatre, 17 SE 8th Ave., adroitpdx.com. 7 pm Thursday-Saturday, 2 pm Sunday, through July 22. $24-$30.