Here in the 21st century, the ugly fact of political persecution of homosexuals is out of the closet. But when Martin Sherman's play Bent premiered in 1979, the Nazis' imprisonment and slaughter of thousands of gay people came as a shock to many theatergoers.
Bent is certainly a play of ideas, but it's more about characters than polemics, and Gypsy Productions' version benefits from several strong, affecting performances.
Bent begins in Berlin in 1934, on the morning after the Night of the Long Knives, when infighting within the Nazi Party led to the murders of high-ranking members of the storm troopers, whom Hitler suspected of plotting to overthrow him.
Max, one of the main characters in Bent, picks that night to bring home from a club the boyfriend of a storm trooper officer. When SS troopers show up to kill the man, Max and his lover Rudy barely escape.
The first act follows their growing realization that their lives are in danger and their efforts to escape Germany. The second act takes place in the Dachau concentration camp. Rudy is fussy, domestic and clingy; Max is a dashing party boy, incapable of commitment. But as their circumstances grow more desperate, they become more complex.
On the way to Dachau, Max meets Horst, a prisoner wearing a pink star on his uniform. "If you're queer, that's what you wear," Horst tells him. "If you're a Jew, a yellow star. Political, a red triangle. Criminal, green. Pink's the lowest."
At an appalling cost, Max makes a deal for a yellow star.
As Max, Lawrence Buzzeo has the good looks and charm of a successful con man, but he also conveys his character's denial, terror and redemption. The second act is a nerve-wracking combination of mindless physical labor and intense emotion, and Daniel Harris as Horst drives it with mordant humor and doomed passion.
Buzzeo and Harris spark plenty of chemistry in their unusual lovemaking scene, standing yards apart and never touching, only speaking.
Michael Titone as the naive Rudy is amusing and then moving as his character faces his fate. Bill Bryant is appropriately scary as the sinister Greta, the drag queen-club owner who betrays and abets Max and Rudy. And Slake Counts is terrific in a single scene as Max's Uncle Freddie, who tries to talk him into the safety of the closet.
There are a few glitches. Some characters speak with vague German accents, others with none, for no discernible reason. Horst's dead-man-walking makeup is distracting.
But director Trevor Keller has chosen a well-wrought play in Bent, and his cast delivers it with passion.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at (727) 893-8435 or bancroftsptimes.com.
Bent, presented by Gypsy Productions through Oct. 10 at Suncoast Theatre, Suncoast Resort, 3000 34th St. S, St. Petersburg. 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 1:30 p.m. Sunday. $15. RSVP (727) 456-0500. Adult subject matter, brief nudity.