How well does karaoke go with a World War II love story about a Nazi who is smitten with a young French woman in Chartres, Frances, in the year 1944? It’s a probably a question you’ve never asked, but playwright Rita Kalnejais answers it in her new play, “This Beautiful Future,” which opened Tuesday at Off Broadway’s Cherry Lane Theatre.
To call it the proverbial oil-and-water mix doesn’t begin to describe this onstage mismatch.
Before the play begins, Frank J. Oliva’s arresting set design greets us at the Cherry Lane. He divides the stage in two, with a sleek, modernistic bedroom set placed downstage and a glass booth upstage. The glass booth is occupied first, and a title is projected on the proscenium that we should welcome with applause “Angelina,” as embodied by actress Angelina Fiordellisi. Complete with a karaoke monitor behind her, Fiordellisi starts to sing as the lyrics are projected. When she finishes, the titles encourage us to welcome with applause “Austin,” who is the actor Austin Pendleton, who also treats us to a song.
Much younger actors soon occupy the downstage area, and while their respective names are Francesca Carpanini and Uly Schlesinger, we are not encouraged to welcome with applause as “Francesca” or “Uly.” Carpanini and Schlesinger play characters who are respectively named Elodie and Otto, and they are clearly there for a rendezvous. Since they are named Elodie and Otto and the titles projected on the proscenium have told us that this play is set in 1944 in Chartres, France, one has to be pretty dim not to guess that he’s a Nazi and she’s a French girl who’s going to get a punk haircut before the evening’s over.
Kalnejais, unfortunately, attempts to set up this non-revelation as some kind of a surprise: The awkward introductory chatter is innocuous and sounds very present-day. In other words, we are being told a story that is Universal. More numbing than the dialogue are those moments when the characters perform mundane tasks without speaking, like removing their shoes or washing their hands. Under Jack Serio’s lackluster direction, there’s nothing but dead air on stage. It’s a relief when the old couple in the glass booth starts to sing another song.
Meanwhile, we wait for the inevitable swastika to drop.
Eventually, Kalnejais gets around to having her two younger characters reveal what we guessed 15, 20 minutes earlier – he’s a Nazi soldier and she’s a young woman who may be looking for chocolates and nylons more than love or even hot sex. Schlesinger manages to make his character come off sympathetic even when spouting fascist propaganda. He uses the word “gigs” to describe Hitler’s rallies. It’s another stab at that Universal thing.
The two pairs of actors, while separated in age by more than a few decades, are amazing lookalikes. If Elodie and Otto had met under less fraught circumstances – are we to wonder? – they could have grown old like Angelina and Austin to sing dreadful songs, most of the tunes being about love.
The big suspense of “This Beautiful Future” is watching Elodie nurse a chicken’s egg she recently found, and we all wait for it to hatch. I won’t give away the sweet yet disturbing ending, but I wonder if PETA should check out this production.
Serio’s direction does achieve something unique. When Elodie and Otto engage in a delightful pillow fight ripped from countless old movies and the inevitable feathers start to fly, it was the first time I found myself happy to be wearing a mask over my nose and mouth in the theater.
For the record, the New York Times bestowed its inevitable Critics Pick on “This Beautiful Future” when it opened last January at Off-Off Broadway’s Theatrelab.