Back in the early 1990s, playwright Doug Wright embarked on a series of trips to Germany where he interviewed an elderly transvestite named Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, who had somehow survived through two of the most repressive eras of European history: Hitler’s Third Reich and, later, the deadening rise of Communism in the former East Germany. At the outset, her story (which begins as “his” story—Charlotte was born Lothar Berfelde in 1928) appeals because it is so subversive, such a curiosity. As Wright puts it in the play’s introduction, she was the “precious Trannie Granny, rescuing wartime artifacts, running her covert museum, and providing a role model for homosexuals everywhere.” Five years before her death in 2002, reports surfaced about her involvement with the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police. The obvious question: Did she rat out her friends in order to save her own neck? Wright never gets a clear answer. Charlotte is a perpetual enigma, and as portrayed by the excellent and precise Jefferson Mays, she is at once charming and impossible to pin down. “I Am My Own Wife” won both the Pulitzer and a Tony last year, and it is an intricately designed piece wherein a single actor plays all the characters of the story. As directed by Moises Kaufman (“One Arm,” recently at Steppenwolf), Mays’ shape-shifting performance captures everything from the playwright’s own fey manner of speech to that of an American journalist with a macho Texas twang, to Charlotte’s mincing steps and squeaky, gravelly voice. You never tire of Mays—his features are just nondescript enough so that the overall effect is chameleon-like. And yet, despite all these attributes, I find it hard to get excited about this show. Something about it holds you at arm’s length—but then again, that was Charlotte’s stock in trade. (Nina Metz)
“I Am My Own Wife” plays at the Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn, (312)443-3800, through February 20.