A Nazi concentration camp commandant is amorously kissing the buttocks of a male African-American prisoner. At the same moment in 1939, on the other side of the Atlantic, Gone With the Wind, the iconic film that romanticizes slavery, is premiering in Atlanta.
That's a potently dramatic duo. And if genuine surprises and startling juxtapositions were enough to make great theater, Robert O'Hara's Antebellum, now at Cleveland Public Theatre, would be positively Shakespearian.
Indeed, the first act — and the first scene in the second act — exerts a mysterious and hypnotic pull. But the last hour of the show is so melodramatic and didactic, it forces the play to collapse upon itself.
Antebellum features grand geographic leaps that take the audience from the commandant's sweaty office to a placid parlor in Atlanta to a gay cabaret in the waning days of the Weimar Republic. This hopscotching is all in service of the playwright's desire to compare and contrast racial and ethnic hatred (and yes, even love) on two continents.
In Atlanta, Sarah Roca is preparing to attend the movie premiere with her husband Ariel, waiting for the elaborate frock she designed to arrive from the dressmaker. But the knock on the door is instead a young black woman named Edna, seeking a glass of water.
As the two women chat, it appears that Edna has an ulterior motive, fixing Sarah with penetrating stares and a barely hidden condescending attitude.
Then the scene shifts to Germany, where closeted Commandant Oskar von Schleicher is being taught English by a prisoner, Gabriel Gift. It turns out Gabriel, a cabaret singer with a lovely falsetto, had been in Berlin with his Jewish male lover, who wisely left for America before Jews and homosexuals (Gabriel included) were swept up by the Nazis.
Thanks to O'Hara and director Beth Wood, these entwined stories unfold at the start with cunning subtlety and flashes of arresting physical candor. The first act ends with teasing references to Gabriel and Edna having been "adjusted," whetting the appetite for an equally deft Act Two.
After that, in an attempt to separate major thematic threads and inspect them more closely, both playwright and director bring heavy-duty Sawzalls to a delicate task that requires a scalpel. In any case, the big surprise hinted at earlier is fully revealed, the back stories of the Jewish Rocas are defined, and we witness the fate of the Oskar and Gabriel relationship.
Happily, the five-person CPT cast is virtually flawless. As Gabriel, Nicholas Sweeney hits all the marks superbly as a trapped man in a horrific situation. He is matched by Dana Hart's Oskar, displaying both the casual viciousness and hidden compassion doing battle in the SS officer's tortured psyche.
Edna is played by Audrey Lovy with such compelling stage presence, it is all but impossible to avert your gaze. As for Sarah, although her character is supposedly "simple," Laurel Hoffman provides depth that often isn't in the script. The only character to appear both in Atlanta and Berlin is Ariel, and Mark Rabant is convincing in both locales.
Having conceptualized an "Oh, wow!" juxtaposition of Nazi atrocities with American racial offenses, the playwright belabors too many latter scenes, forcing the characters to spell out his themes obviously and tediously.
Meanwhile, many of the concluding moments are acted at full volume, adding cheesy intensity to the over-the-top activities. Things get so screechy, you'd half-expect Carol Burnett to totter out in her Gone With the Wind parody skit, complete with the curtain-rod gown.
And that's a shame, since there are fascinating thoughts and stellar performances embedded in this gloriously risk-taking work.