On Sundays Gothamist runs opinion pieces relevant to life in New York and reviews of recent books and performances. The judgments expressed below are entirely those of the author.

2006_04_arts_wphitler.jpgIt’s hard to imagine a quirkier, more compelling idea for a character than a half-Irish salesman, jazz aficionado, and ladies’ man who also happens to be Adolf Hitler’s nephew. It might not even be possible to dream up such a creation, and in fact Mark Kassen (who was featured in a Gothamist interview last week) didn’t have to, because there really was a William Patrick Hitler, and he is the subject of Kassen’s play little Willy (directed by John Gould Rubin). Don’t go to the show expecting a straightforward telling of his story, though – Kassen embodies Willy effectively, but the result is more of a lurid, unsettling psychological biography than anything else.

Standing on the almost-bare stage, with an enormous projection screen looming behind him and the thick pillars of the Ohio theater space surrounding him imposingly, Kassen does seem very “little.” The screen shows, over the course of the performance, excerpts from a handwritten letter Willy sent to FDR begging for his assistance in getting into the Navy, since his notorious name was a bit of a handicap. The intermittent reading of the letter itself provides much of the play’s structure, as it touches upon most of the themes and concerns of Willy’s life, which often seem sort of contradictory as well as perplexing. This is surely because, as Kassen nimbly conveys, Willy himself was a bundle of paradoxes: boisterous yet hesitant, confident yet worried. After each new segment of the letter to FDR, we see a telling scene from Willy’s life: him as a charming but unsuccessful VW salesman; as a charming flirt but inadequate lover; and, perhaps most importantly, as a victim of family and historical forces, apparently sincere in his desire to distance himself from Adolf Hitler and Nazism, but always dragged back anyway, because of the doors, both bad and good, that his name inevitably opened for him. 2006_04_arts_littlewilly.jpgFilling in assorted other roles, most notably a series of women he hits on and a shady government agent who cross-examines him, is the versatile Roxanna Hope, whose bright presence tempers the harshness of the spotlight on Kassen somewhat. With each rejection or disappointing showing, he shows Willy to be a little smaller and closer to defeat until in the documentary-style final sequence Kassen simply disappears offstage, and an epilogue projected onto the screen outlines the essentially unnoticed end to Willy’s days.

Unless you’re only interested in getting the history of William Patrick Hitler, Kassen’s approach to the past contained in little Willy compares favorably with David Hare’s in Stuff Happens, now at the Public, which I also saw recently. Despite the reality that Hare did make a considerable amount of the play up, because it concerns private dialogues between Bush and Blair, and Powell and Rice, and so on, and despite some intelligent, passionate acting, the play comes off as a mere rehashing of the events leading up to the war in Iraq, without new interpretation or creative insight. Of course there’s nothing wrong with scrutinizing those events, in fact we should probably have them uppermost in our minds if they’re not, especially with talk of a similar process possibly in the works for Iran -- but what’s the point of doing so in a theatrical setting if you’re not going to bother doing so artistically or innovatively, so that the audience leaves thinking about the situation in a new way? Most of us have seen/read about (or just assumed, in the case of the imagined tête-à-têtes) all of it, probably many times, and Stuff Happens just doesn’t add much to the conversation. Almost no one knew the fascinating William Patrick Hitler story, so Kassen could have done a straight history play and still made a valuable contribution. little Willy is not that kind of play – we’ll have to wait for some intrepid reporter to follow the tracks of Kassen’s research to hear the full account – but is instead a dark, stylized tumble down the rabbit-hole of Willy’s quest – sometimes pathetic, sometimes winning, often disquieting – to become his own person and escape the devastating consequences of his family background.

Ohio Theater // 66 Wooster St. // Through April 30, Fri. & Sat. 8pm, Sun. 7pm // Tickets via Ticket Central
Photos by Monique Carboni.