Playwright Gab Cody takes a healthy portion of Oscar Wilde, a soupçon of Noel Coward, and throws in a dash of the Moliere for good measure in her world premiere play, “Prussia: 1866.” It’s a comedy of manners, wherein all of the characters behave without manners.
Drew Palajsa plays Friedrich “Fritz” Nietzsche (yes, that Nietzsche). Fritz is desperately in love with his tutor’s wife, Mariska (Laura Lee Brautigam). His mutton-chopped tutor, Heinrich Von Klump (Philip Winters) is oblivious. Meanwhile, Heinrich’s secretary (secret co-writer), Rosemary (Gab Cody) is in love with Heinrich, even though she is being pursued by a handsome American Delegate (Sam Turich). The maid, Karoline (Hayley Neilsen), literally swoons over Fritz. If that wasn’t complicated enough, Griselda Eberstark (Mary Rawson) has her own giant monkey wrench to throw into the plot.
Though Nietzsche was a real person, the rest of this historical fiction, very, very fictional historical fiction. The only truth of the play is that Friedrich Nietzsche was 22 in 1866 and living in Prussia. The rest rides in on the trolley from Make Believe (Note: The playwright has written segments for “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood”). Nietzsche probably wouldn’t have minded the revisionist take on his life. He believed that history was always being rewritten. Although, he would probably take umbrage for being portrayed as a Dionysian character, ruled by disorder, intoxication, emotion and ecstasy. But what lovely Dionysian chaos “Prussia: 1866” stirs up.
Cody throws in philosophy, sexual politics, religion and suffrage. Don’t assume this is an overly-intellectual play that drones on about man’s (and woman’s) place in the world. It’s a zany comedy with allusions of intellectual grandeur, and it’s delightful.
Comedy works best when the actors take it seriously. The characters must believe they will live or die from their actions and decisions in the absurd world they live in. Cody’s Fritz believes he will die without Mariska’s love. Palajsa nails it. He is immersed in Fritz’s madcap machinations. He is also fearless, playing a chunk of the first act naked.
Mary Rawson’s Griselda Eberstark channels Maggie Smith, playing the character with all the imperiousness of Lady Bracknell (“The Importance of Being Earnest”), Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess (“Downton Abbey) and Aunt Charlotte (“Room with a View”). Eberstark is haughty and over-bearing, but, unlike the aforementioned dowagers and spinster aunt, she is a libertine. Rawson plays her both sly and supercilious. The incongruity is hilarious.
Sam Turich’s American Delegate is a delight. His befuddlement as he bounces off the language barrier was laugh-out-loud funny. Cody compounds the comedy with a delightful bit of purposeful misinterpreted interpretation.
Director Kim Martin does a fantastic job, especially when the actors are zipping around in and out of doors and passageways or falling out of windows. There is a kinetic ballet in the second act that is executed flawlessly thanks to Martin’s direction.
High praise must be lauded on Hayley Neilsen’s Karoline. She is uproariously funny as the protestant maid. It is a small part played large by the young actor. Nietzsche and the Von Klamp’s summoned the maid with a bell. Whenever the bell sounded, it produced Pavlovian tittering. The audience expected hilarity with every ring, and they received it in kind. For some inexplicable reason, the Prussian protestant speaks with a cockney accent, but, like the plot, it doesn’t really matter.
“Prussia: 1866” is not only funny, but beautifully rendered by the cast and crew. There were excellent costumes by Cathleen Cocker-Perry. A special merit must be awarded for Brautigam’s Seussical hairstyle. The set is a sumptuous design in sea foam green by Stephanie Mayer-Staley. The lighting design by Andrew David Ostrowski was superb. The production team created an unusual technique for making fire using steam, wind and light. It was a clever effect.
Toward the end, the play collapses into silliness. If you’re willing to go along for the ride, you’re in for a treat. “Prussia: 1866” isn’t perfect, but it’s perfectly fun.
“Prussia: 1866” runs through February 22 at the Pittsburgh Playhouse.