When Aunt Daphne Went Nude: Naked Nazis???
Picture the most vile, disgusting group of people you could ever imagine. Are you picturing them? Good.
Now picture them naked.
Scary, eh? Did you know there used to be Nazi nudists? I didn't. So when I read the press release for Miriam Jensen Hendrix's new play When Aunt Daphne Went Nude ("Dashing young Reginald just wants to impress his fiancee from America. Unfortunately, his mother doesn't approve of the engagement, his father's just polished off a fifth of scotch and his eccentric Aunt Daphne doesn't want to keep her clothes on...") I figured, "Oh, fun! Looks like some screwball comedy of manners farce." But as I'm thumbing through the press material while waiting for the curtain to go up, there's a page of author's notes talking about Hitler. Hitler? Well, I guess if I had looked closer at the cute, cartoon logo I would have noticed the cleverly hidden swastika.
It seems there were factions of early Aryan supremacists who were heavily into alternate lifestyles such as sun worship, herbal medicine, mysticism and, of course, nudism. Resorts were set up where naked Nazis tried to soak up beneficial cosmic forces by assuming postures in the shape of runes, an ancient Germanic alphabet. I suppose that came in handy if any of them wanted to become cheerleaders.
Oddly, the two most famous practitioners were a pair of Brit sisters, Unity and Diana Mitford, members of aristocracy who took to Nazi racism as a way of escaping the failing economy. They also serve as the main inspiration for Hendrix's comedy, which despite its dark theme, provides a good many belly laughs and fun situations.
Hit hard by the Depression, the Walmesley family has taken to opening up their English manor home (a beautiful and stately set by Gregory Tippit, matched by his impressive array of period costumes) as a museum. Lady Delia (Patricia Hodges) is desperate to have her son Reginald (Scott Ferrara) marry a wealthy young girl whose family has recently made a fortune manufacturing vats and ladles for soup kitchens. But Reginald loves a simple Vermont lass (Tarah Flanagan) who is visiting for the weekend with her conservative aunt (Lucille Patton) who has guardianship over her until age 25. Delia takes the opportunity to make sure her most embarrassing family members are highly visible, including her scotch-guzzling husband (Roy Bacon), their loud-spoken Texas nephew (Josh Shirley) and the always eccentric, and appropriately Wagnerian Aunt Daphne (Jane Titus), hoping to scare the Yanks into marching back home.
The first half of the play simply deals with the amusement of watching these characters mix and match and although Hendrix has gathered a grouping of familiar types, Keith Oncale's zippy direction and the ensemble cast's comic agility help make her funny dialogue play out like a visit with old friends. Hodges' frazzled lady of the house and Ferrara's comic dash are especially winning, as are Shirley's good-natured Texan and J. C. Hoyt's portrayle of Jipsome, the unflappable butler who subtly, if not physically, rolls his eyes at the proceedings.
To the uninformed, Titus' Aunt Daphne seems no more than delightfully daft at first, with her talk of opening a nudist health spa in Bavaria, but in Act II we get her rather frank after-dinner conversation with the group about racial purity and the problems regarding Jews, and we find out other characters have unappealing opinions on the subject. The sharp contrast of this scene feels like the author has suddenly handed us a new play with a more respectfully serious tone, and although I admire the effort to write about this kind of ugliness, I can't help thinking it would be more effective if the sense of whimsy had remained.
Still, romantic ties are tied, an attempt at public nudity is comically thwarted and all ends reasonably happy, despite that dark cloud overhead, adding up to a charming and funny play bravely approaching an uncomfortable theme.
Photo of Jane Titus and Josh Shirley by Shawn Washburn
When Aunt Daphne Went Nude plays at the Mint Theatre through November 14. For information call 212-352-3101