You can’t choose when you fall in love. For Elodie and Otto, the central characters of Rita Kalnejais’ This Beautiful Future, that turns out to have a load of complications. In Jack Serio’s quietly moving production, the audience experiences a similar conflict. We become invested in these characters, in their relationships with each other and with the outside world, only to learn something dark and evil, and then turn around and question our judgment of that darkness. In a spare 75 minutes, Kalnejais creates a whirlpool of emotion and it never stops spinning.
We first meet Elodie and Otto in an abandoned apartment in 1944 France during the German occupation. They’re a couple of attractive young people, one already in his underwear, in a room with only a mattress and a wash basin. The premise is simple and the chemistry is immediate. But they’re both tentative. Elodie has something else to deal with: her hands are covered in blood. She’s rescued a chicken egg from a bombed-out coop beseiged by a fox. They tuck the egg in her shoe to keep it incubating, blanketed with down from a pillow and one of Otto’s socks. They relax a bit. They flirt, they tease each other, Otto gives her flowers.
But there is something lurking. Gradually, it’s revealed that Otto is from Dusseldorf, that he is assigned to a firing squad, and that he has killed a lot of people. He tells her that he dreams of “a future where everyone’s clean,” and he refers to his leader as “Mr. Hitler.” Elodie does not share his sympathies, but she’s not here to argue. Elodie’s attraction to Otto and her willingness to overlook his cruelty is the crux of Kalnejais’ play. How much do you or can you give up for love? For Elodie, she doesn’t think of the ramifications until it’s too late. The play shows us what happens to friends of Nazis when they fall from power.
The thrill of This Beautiful Future is in the way it walks the tightrope between love and responsibility, between the heart and the head. Elodie sees a better Otto and imagines what they could be when his army retreats. But in focusing on the future, she is stepping over a chasm that will eventually consume her. As the chicken egg is cradled in her shoe, Elodie and Otto are cradled in the empty apartment, safe from facing their actions or wondering how those actions will impact them should it not turn out their way.
Elodie and Otto are shadowed by an elderly couple in a liminal karaoke box at the back of the stage. Played by Angelina Fiordellisi and Austin Pendleton, they are both human and spectral. They are maybe Elodie and Otto or maybe two unrelated people with similar regrets. They sing a variety of songs that underscore and comment on the foibles and ignorance of the younger pair. Fiordellisi has a beautiful voice that aches with longing. Pendleton’s character is sort of lost, sort of overcome by the mistakes he made. It feels like he has one foot in a hypothetical time machine, ready to go back at any second. They could be telling us that Elodie and Otto are together, wherever they are now, or that they are close to each other, but never able to fulfill their desire. Fiordellisi and Pendleton make the enigma of their circumstances as realistic as their younger counterparts in their more straightforward scenes.
Justin Mark brings a kindness and openness to Otto. He lets us see what Elodie sees in him. But he snaps into a terrifying soldier at a moment’s notice, completely undoing all that gentleness. His face beams at her, projecting nothing but love. It’s easy to believe that there’s something better there and it’s hard to reconcile that with what he does outside those four walls. Kalnejais, Mark, and Serio have fashioned a world where this proto-Proud Boy can exist as both a monster and an ingenue. He has a monologue about being inspired by hearing Hitler speak that recalls the way Trump’s supporters speak of him. Kalnejais’ writing draws this unspoken parallel stronger and with more subtlety than many other plays tried to do during the prior administration. Otto is following orders, but he also believes in them. Mark goes miles in justifying that. His Otto is not entirely sympathetic, but it’s not so easy to write him off, either. It is a complex performance, delicately shaded, and an impressive display of craft.
As Elodie, Francesca Carpanini feels like she’s in control of the situation until an avalanche of events throws her off her footing towards the end of the play. She is there because she wants to be with Otto, plain and simple, politics be damned. We see a flashback scene where he is watching her skinny dip at the lake and even at their first meeting, she encourages him to disrobe and get in the water. Carpanini plays up Elodie’s desire. She’s thinking about what’s under the uniform, not the uniform itself, which encapsulates how she thinks about their relationship on the whole. Costume designer Ricky Reynoso dresses Otto in white undergarments for the majority of the play, showing him the way Elodie sees him, and the way he may indeed be: innocent and naked.
Elodie listens to the BBC (illegally) and has more information about Otto’s army than he gets from only listening to internal propaganda. She asks him questions about people she knows who have gone missing, trying to get intel from someone who might have seen them, even as they were murdered. She’s not exactly using Otto or using her body to get information. She is enjoying their relationship, but finding perks beyond the physical. Like Mark, Carpanini is tasked with playing a million things at once, and she layers her actions and motivations with imperceptible finesse. When the consequences mount late in the play, Carpanini is bone-chilling as Elodie realizes what she’s done. She describes a mob of people so vividly that, even though there’s no one there, you feel the crush of bodies surround her.
It’s a feat that Serio’s production is as playful as it is. It’s deathly serious, but he keeps the focus on the romance until it’s impossible to keep the outside world from creeping in. The harrowing shift late in the play is so effectively graduated that the audience realizes what’s happening to the characters as they discover it themselves. It’s both a deserved comeuppance and a devastating attack. Serio’s A+ design team helps with this immensely. The curved wall of Frank J. Oliva’s set seems to tumble the characters into the room and holds them like the bend of a wrist to the palm of a hand. Stacey Derosier’s lighting transforms the empty room several times over, bringing passion and danger through the walls. Christopher Darbassie’s sound design also brings atmosphere when the outside impinges on their sanctuary. The actors employ handheld microphones in the second half of the play and the clarity and intensity of the sound design creates an immediacy with the audience.
In a city filled with theatre everywhere you look, sometimes it’s behind a barely-marked door on 36th Street and 9th Avenue, up an elevator, and down a narrow hall where you and forty-odd people will experience something challenging and unforgettable. As I made the reverse journey back to the street, I was struck by how much I felt This Beautiful Future in all its complicated wonder. In the best possible sense, Kalnejais’ play raises many questions and Serio’s production raises even more. I’m going to keep thinking about it. If you see it, I bet you will, too.