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Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night




                                 By Julia Polinsky

Brian Katz’s adaptation of Mother Night is, by turns, a labor of love, a time-blending story centered on the consequences of WWII, and a mess. It shrieks of being the product of years of careful study and involvement with the Vonnegut book. The problem is: the Vonnegut book. The story may be wrenching, but it’s a literary phenomenon, not a theatrical one: a story, told. Not shown.

In Mother Night, Howard W. Campbell, Jr., (Gabriel Grilli) introduces himself as he sits in an Israeli jail cell awaiting trial, writing his memoir. Although American-born, during WWII, Campbell lived in Germany and was a famous Nazi propagandist.

About that propaganda: Campbell was actually an agent for the United States. His broadcasts passed coded information to the Americans, using vocal tics and glitches, pauses, coughs, throat clearing, etc. He was recruited by an OSS agent, Francis Wirtanen; (Andrea Gallo) he refers to her has his “Blue Fairy Godmother.”

Trish Lindstrom, Gabriel Grilli                            photos by Carol Rosegg

His German wife, Helga, (Trish Lindstrom) starred in his plays, and he was famous for his narrated radio broadcasts. He climbed the Nazi social ladder, but in private, cared nothing for politics, only for Helga and their “nation of two.” When Helga was killed while entertaining troops at the front, Campbell lost his will to live. After he was captured at the end of the war, his Blue Fairy Godmother got him set free and sent back to America with a new identity.

Years later, living in an attic in Greenwich Village, Campbell resumed his own name, partly because of his indifference to life, and partly because he was sure nobody gave a damn. Using his own name had consequences, though. He was out-ed, and used as a political tool

 Gabriel Grilli, Andrea Gallo 

Several plot twists later, involving Campbell’s neighbor George (Dave Sikula), a deep-cover Soviet intelligence officer; O’Hare (Dared Wright), the GI who captured him at the end of the war; Jones (Eric Rice), the leader of a white supremacist group; Helga and her little sister; the FBI; a cyanide capsule, and, again, the Blue Fairy Godmother, Campbell returned to his barren attic, with no friend, no wife, no work, and no reason to live. He turned himself in to the Israelis to stand trial for his crimes against humanity. That’s where we first encounter him, writing his memoir, knowing that nobody will ever be able to step forward and prove that he was an American Agent.

Except. One more time, the Blue Fairy Godmother saved the day, sending a letter that proves that Campbell was indeed an American spy, and saying she’ll swear to it in court. Depressives can’t deal with rescue, though, and so he chooses to hang himself for his “crimes against himself” -- after making a few telling statements: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." "When you're dead, you're dead." “Make love when you can. It's good for you."

Galli’s portrayal of Howard Campbell suffers from the problem of playing someone who doesn’t give a damn about anything. Why should the audience care, if he does not? It’s a dilemma the director and actor could not resolve well. Lacking a star-quality performance at the center of Mother Night, the actors surrounding him do what they can to make it work. It’s not enough.


Brian Katz has done a valiant job of trying to make Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Mother Night, into a piece of theater. However, to be faithful to Vonnegut’s so-it-goes attitude, with its studied indifference and writing about writing, is to lose what makes theater effective. On the stage, you have to show, and make the audience care. Remove showing and caring, and Mother Night, a sad and terrible commentary on how we betray ourselves, becomes flat.



Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night

October 5-November 3, 2018

59E59 Theater B

Tickets $35;

Tue-Fri 7:15

Sat 2:15 and 7:15

Sun 2:15