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Berkeley Rep’s ‘Watch on the Rhine’ sadly relevant

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From left, Sarah Agnew, Caitlin O’Connell and Elijah Alexander appear in “Watch on the Rhine” at Berkeley Rep. (Courtesy Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)
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As the always politically conscious Berkeley Repertory Theatre expected, American playwright Lillian Hellman’s drama “Watch on the Rhine” feels uncomfortably relevant today.

She wrote it in 1940, before America joined World War II; it premiered in 1941 and was made into a movie with Bette Davis in 1943.

In fact, as director Lisa Peterson remarked in an interview printed in the program, the central character, Kurt, intones, aptly, “Shame on us. Thousands of years and we cannot yet make a world.”

In the first act of this co-production with Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Kurt, a German (Elijah Alexander, generally fine but occasionally given to blustery overacting), arrives at the luxurious home, outside Washington, D.C., of widowed matriarch Fanny (a terrific Caitlin O’Connell, a character perhaps not unlike the playwright herself) and her son, David (Hugh Kennedy).

With Kurt is his wife, Sara (a focused and appealing Sarah Agnew), who’s Fanny’s daughter, and who has been living in Europe for years, with Kurt and their three children.

Kurt identifies himself as an “anti-fascist,” and he is indeed, but that’s only part of the story.

Fanny’s houseguest, Teck (a nicely textured turn by Jonathan Walker), a Romanian count who has outstayed his welcome here, is immediately suspicious about Kurt’s true activities in wartime Germany.

Two other principal characters are Teck’s unhappy younger wife (a mannered Kate Guentzel) and Fanny’s francophone friend and secretary (the always interesting local actor Leontyne Mbele-Mbong).

The story, intermittently melodramatic, with a drawn-out and sentimental ending, unfurls over the course of three acts on a beautifully designed parlor set (by Neil Patel) with an upstage terrace, complete with a tree, illuminated through multi-paned windows.

Peterson hews close to the bone, staging the play as it perhaps would have been seen originally, with musical punctuation that’s at times as melodramatic as some of the speeches (sound designer/composer Paul James Prendergast), and blocking that often feels as stilted and unnatural as the dialogue, much of which is geared toward imparting information.

In a play that’s as talky as this, Fanny stands out. The character describes herself as “old and made of dried cork and bad manners,” and, as played by O’Connell, is a dryly witty straight shooter — not trying to be anything other than herself.

Despite its important subject matter, the creaky play, with characters as stock as a cloyingly precocious kid and a noble and self-sacrificing wife (no fault of Agnew) never feels emotionally involving — and it should.

REVIEW
Watch on the Rhine
Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Where: Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. most Sundays; closes Jan. 14
Tickets: $45 to $97
Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org

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