I Am My Own Wife

Hosted by

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

There's a line in the play I Am My Own Wife that when I saw it last year on Broadway, caused me to shiver-not in horror but rather in excitement about the ideas and emotions that a dramatic work can elicit.

Seeing the play last night, at the opening performance of I Am My Own Wife's brief engagement here in Los Angeles, that string of words prompted the exact same response.

The line is a simple one. It's spoken by Jefferson Mays, the play's sole actor, and it takes place in the basement of the main character's house in East Berlin. He says that he wishes he could take a phonograph needle and apply it, not just to records, but to an antique table so he can hear the voices of people that used to sit around it years ago.

This is the type of line that looks good on the page; but in the context of the play, when the main character, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, reveals what's been hidden under her house for decades, the effect is breathtaking.

I Am My Own Wife, Doug Wright's 2003 play, which rightly won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for best new play, is proof that the best theater has the ability to put a metaphorical phonograph needle to an object, person or time period and magically make it speak directly to an audience.

There is a good deal of German spoken in I Am My Own Wife, a short play that seems to be over in an &quotaugenblick;," to use a wonderful teutonic word for &quotmoment;" that literally means &quotthe; blink of an eye." But the deutschsprachig should not discourage anyone from seeing this singular theatrical work.

A one-man show about an East-German, transvestite, antiques-dealer may not sound like an entertaining or even accessible show; but in fact, this play as funny as it is touching.

Those with fetishes for 19th Century furniture, the cold war, or transgendered individuals, will of course enjoy I Am My Own Wife-but I have yet to meet anyone who has not been charmed by the story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf and her apron full of keys.

If there is one German term that succinctly describes Doug Wright's play, it would be the word &quotbeleben.;" &quotLeben;" is the German verb &quotto; live" and so &quotBeleben;" means to animate-or to bring to life.

This is exactly what I Am My Own Wife does. Like the needle magically making music out of the grooves along an antique table, Doug Wright's play conjures real life out of words, lighting, and gestures. Wright's text is on occasion direct and poetic enough that it needs no staging to help it, but the play certainly benefits from Moises Kaufman's simple yet elegant production. Using only a few, well chosen props and one unforgettable costume-consisting of orthopedic shoes, a black apron, and a string of pearls-director Kaufman evokes with the imagination what no budget of special effects could ever achieve.

Of course, the most special effect of all in I Am My Own Wife is the man who plays the many roles in this play. Jefferson Mays won every acting award in New York for his performance of not just Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, but also his portrayals of American soldiers, East German police, and even a New York playwright. Besides mastering the voices of all these characters-making each distinct enough so there is never a moment of confusion as to who is speaking-Mays also is a master of movement. Changes in character can be detected by a mere shift in posture, a turn of Mays' head, or even the movement of his eyes.

It should noted that &quotbeleben;" does not just mean &quotto; animate" in German-it also can be used to mean &quotto; enliven," &quotto; vitalize," or &quotto; invigorate." Likewise, I Am My Own Wife does not merely bring Charlotte von Mahlsdorf to life, it has also has the power to enliven one's evening and reinvigorate one's belief in the future of the American dramatic stage.

I Am My Own Wife runs through July 10 at the Wadsworth Theatre in Brentwood.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.