The Forgiving Theatre Critic

The premise of “FDR’s Power Suit” is quite far-fetched. In 1942, Franklin Delano Roosevelt discovers a suit of powered time-travel body armor that allows him to travel backwards in time, right to Braunau am Inn, Austria – Hitler’s birthplace. There, he is confronted with the dilemma of killing Young Hitler, despite the fact that the world doesn’t yet know the monster he will become.
This is a first effort by playwright Preston McDaniels and comes across as such, though McDaniels should be applauded for having the guts to put the idea to paper and the focus to write it all out, because it takes a lot of time to do that. Not to mention, his mother died last year while skiing and he’s had a very tough time of it. Knowing that McDaniels has been quite sad as of late makes me hesitant to point out such historical inaccuracies as his FDR having working legs.
From the get-go, it was obvious that the role of FDR was miscast. Annette Carlisle, in addition to being a woman, has much trouble pronouncing the letter “s” without a severe lisp. The end result was often comedic, even in scenes that I believe were supposed to be dramatic. Honestly though, in these times of daily bad news a good laugh is a nice thing, so the comic relief was much appreciated. No doubt the audience was meant to cry during the song “She Sleeps Alone, She Sleeps, She Does” but it was such a hearty laugh that a “thumbssss-up” is in order. I still chuckle when I think back to the closing tearjerker “So, So Sorry.”
Director Francis Daly was apparently very sick in the month before opening night, so many of the inconsistencies I saw can be forgiven. The awkward transitions between scenes were sometimes charming, and one had to wonder if watching the actors fumble around the darkened stage wasn’t actually a stroke of artistic brilliance on Mr. Daly’s part. Probably not, but there’s always a chance it was, and I believe you’re innocent until proven guilty – so kudos to Mr. Daly.
The freestyle approach to blocking was unique. In one scene featuring Michael Chris Finnegan as Young Hitler, all the actors crowded upstage in a small, unlit area. I later learned that someone had placed all their marks in one spot (a practical joke, apparently). Though the actors seemed disoriented and the cacophony made the lyrics impossible to understand, and the resulting chaos seemed to disturb the actors for several scenes following, the joke was quite funny. Certainly they’re not to blame for it.
The role of Hitler was quite slapstick and physically demanding, requiring Finnegan to frequently fall forward to the floor, with his arms by his sides. Though Finnegan is not the best-suited for physical comedy and frequently broke character during these moments, he often regained it after the nosebleed stopped.
In retrospect, Casting Director Martina Turlough might have been better-off going for a less morbidly-obese Young Hitler, but she was also working on a Columbia student film so she was quite busy. Besides, Finnegan has a great headshot, though it’s quite dated. It’s easy to see how Turlough may have cast Finnegan by his misleading photo.
Eva Braun, played by Ania Gonzalez, was tough role to tackle, in part because the character was limited to grunts and cackles. Playwright McDaniels obviously based Ms. Braun on his own mother, as she dies in a skiing accident halfway through the play. After her “death” she dangles over the stage in a Christ-like pose that was as distracting as it was unnecessary. Nevertheless, McDaniels still seems very upset about his mom, so I shan’t make a point of it.
The weakest link in the performances was that of Karl Tather as Joe Goebbels, whose wooden, monotone delivery often ran the risk of bringing each scene to a screeching halt. I later learned that Tather is a third cousin to actor Adrian Brody, so it’s hard to understand what happened. Obviously he comes from brilliant actor stock, so I can only assume he didn’t feel well the night I saw the show.
The tech folks didn’t quite have the lighting down, in part because they have very complicated new software. Technical director Karen Key has a new puppy, and you know how time consuming that can be. In one scene, set in Hitler’s loft apartment, a refrigerator is illuminated by five spotlights. One spends the majority of the scene wondering why, until one realizes that there is no reason why. A soliloquy by FDR about Eva Braun’s crossbow was interrupted when Carlisle was blinded by a strobe light. They’ll probably have these things worked out for future shows, so I’m not going to dwell on them.
Overall, “FDR’s Power Suit” was a very different play in many respects. I think all the elements combine to offer the viewer a unique experience, and one well-worth the $25 admission. I’m giving it 4 out of 5 stars, only because of the few minor problems I’ve mentioned.
Though it may be inappropriate for me to suggest – I believe McDaniels deserves a standing ovation because it will make him feel better, and he really seems down.
“FDR’s Power Suit” at the New Millennium Project Actor’s Theatre; Lower East Side. Seats $25-50. Annette Carlisle as FDR, Michael Chris Finnegan as Young Hitler, Ania Gonzalez as Eva Braun, Karl Tather as Josef Goebbels, Peter Anton Walczak as Hutton Gibson. Shows all month, except Mondays. Tickets are available through TicketPlace.