REVIEW by Willard Manus

John O'Keefe's provocative new drama, TIMES LIKE THESE, was inspired by the true story of the German-Jewish actress Meta Wolff (Laurie O'Brien) and her husband, the Aryan Joachim Gottschalk (Oskar Weiss in the play, performed by Norbert Weisser). Prominent in the Hitler era, the couple chose not to flee the country (as did, say, Peter Lorre and Marlene Dietrich), thinking they could somehow survive as artists in a totalitarian society without completely compromising their principles and integrity.

O'Keefe has taken liberties with the story, making Meta the more famous and talented one (in life Gottschalk was considered the Cary Grant of his day, with Meta playing second fiddle). O'Keefe has also cut the couple's 8-year-old son Michael out of the picture, a wise choice which allows him to concentrate on the complex, fascinating and ultimately tragic relationship between Meta and Oskar.

In TIMES LIKE THESE Meta is at the peak of her career, a beautiful and powerfully gifted actress who runs afoul of the Nazi's racial laws. Raised as a Protestant, she is still banned from performing when the Nazis discover her mother was Jewish. At first she thinks her benefactor, Gustav Grundgens, the crafty head of Berlin's State Theatre, will use his power and influence to spare her from oblivion and persecution. (Gustav never appears on stage, but nevertheless becomes an important character, as do Josef Goebbels and Hermann Goering, the two Hitler henchmen sparring for control of German culture).

As portrayed so memorably by O'Brien, Meta is a tragic heroine: gifted, beautiful, driven, but fatally flawed. Given a chance early on to escape to Switzerland, her ego blinds her to this common-sense decision. She believes that not only Gustav but Goering, a hand-kissing admirer of hers, will protect her.

Meta makes other errors of judgment as well, even as she is being shrewd and clever in deciding on what career moves Oskar should make. She also coaches him on how to play Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, giving him a lesson in Method acting that turns him from a wimp into a martinet. Oskar wins praise and fame in the role, making both of them think he has become politically untouchable, a star in the German theatrical firmament.

This isn't to say that they become Nazi sympathizers. They still hate and fear their masters, believing at the same time, though, that they will be able to outwit them. The perfect opportunity arises when Gustav offers Oskar the chance to play Hamlet. Meta not only persuades him to take the role on (the most important one of his career) but to play it as if he were a brownshirted, strutting Nazi. It was an ingenious way to work both sides of the street: flatter their enemies, even as they were implicitly criticizing and insulting them.

Sometimes artists can get away with such tricks. Meta and Oskar believe this is the case when Goering pronounces Oskar's portrayal magnificent. But then the irate and less-gullible Goebbels pulls rank and tells the gormless Gustav to shut the production down. Not only that, he orders the SS to arrest Meta and ship her to a concentration camp.

We may be watching an historical drama, but it is no museum piece. As the title indicates--and as O'Keefe explains in a program note--there are many similarities between 1939 Germany and 2003 USA: the shrinking of civil rights, the imposition of a "Homefront Security" act, the clamor for war and global domination, the ascension of a leader without a popular mandate. TIMES LIKE THESE is not only a tragic but a cautionary tale.

O'Keefe's play is stronger than his direction is--things become too shrill and overblown at times--but the playwright is generally well served by his actors, both of whom give rich, moving performances. Rand Ryan's lighting design is effective; not so Christopher R Boltz's set and Bridget Phillips' costumes (too drab and tatty).

At 2100 Square Feet, 5615 San Vicente Blvd. through Nov. 16. Call (323) 692-2652.