In the winter of 1932, Hitler discovered one of his trusted colonels in the company of a thirteen-year-old boy. He removed all but one bullet from a 9mm Luger, handed it to the man and left the room, expecting him to do the honorable thing. But the colonel valued his own life more than Hitler’s. He ran out of his room stark naked, pointed the pistol at the future dictator’s head, and fired—but the gun jammed and history bore the brunt of the mechanical failure.
At least according to Woody Harrelson and Frankie Hyman’s wonderful new play, Bullet for Adolf. In the summer of 1983, in Houston, Texas, the Luger resurfaces. It has fallen into the hands of Jurgen (Nick Wyman), an old German with Nazi sympathies who views both Hitler and the gun as symbols of change; he is quick to point out, for example, in the company of both Jews and Black people, that we have the Führer to thank for highways, affordable cars, and paid vacations. In a moment of uncharacteristic candidness, he explains, “Hitler was the wrong man. Reagan is the wrong man. One man’s will should never be inflicted on the millions. But the will of those millions should be felt by that man … symbols keep the dream alive.”
Most of this explaining is done at his daughter Batina’s (Shannon Garland) birthday dinner. Batina is eighteen going on eleven, a squeaky, endearing girl who has fallen in with Jurgen’s employees and their friends. Last summer, she dated Zach (Brandon Coffey)—a longhaired pothead with little interest in anything but good times and with an accent that’s a dead ringer for Mr. Harrelson’s—but now she has an awkward relationship with his roommate, Clint (David Coomber), a manically peppy recovering Baptist with a piercing, aggressive laugh that does a lousy job of masking both his awkwardness and his closeted homosexuality. But when the gun goes missing at the party, it is Jurgen’s Black employee, Frankie Schlomo (Tyler Jacob Rollinson), who is blamed for the theft.
The cast here is first-rate across the board, with Mr. Coffey standing out as a man constantly pleased and unconcerned. While trying to reignite his fling with Batina at her birthday party, he sees no problem in making a Roman Polanski joke in front of her humorless father. After Clint nervously covers for him, he continues, “Matter of fact they just found the cause of pedophilia … Sexy kids.” It’s an old joke, the kind you expect to hear from a drunken high schooler, but Mr. Coffey, with his self-satisfied grin, his relaxed belly and Southern twang, makes it hysterical. Later, he pursues Shareeta (Marsha Stephanie Blake), a Black girl he calls “dark meat”— the most inoffensive use of that expression I have ever heard. Frankie warns him, “Looks like it’s still a long way from your plate,” and he replies, “As long as I can smell it cookin’ in the kitchen, I know I will be fed.” This is a man surrounded by the anxious and the depressed and who has never once worried that his night will not be excellent. Ms. Garland, too, is thoroughly charming, and she plays Batina with the right amount of good-meaning, misguided, yet ultimately winning naiveté; she is the kind of girl who would instructively tell her (all white) friends that it is okay when “they” say the “N-word,” even if she is uncomfortable with hearing anyone say it.
The thematic strokes of Bullet for Adolf are broad and unexpected: we hear from Germans, Jews, gay people, and Black people, none of whom are secure with their ethnic or sexual identities. Perhaps the most emblematic character is Dago “Motherfuckin’ ” Czech, a poor imitation of a pimp who loves to announce that he is “half Italian, half Czechoslovakian, [and] a hundred percent nigger.” When confronted about his use of Black language by Batina, he snaps back, more offended than she, “Who are you, the nigger police?” And perhaps he’s right—surely each person’s identity is their own. I’m not entirely certain that all the pieces of the play fit together, though that may be appropriate, given the complexity and inevitable unsolvability of the material. In the end, we are left with a portrait of confused, unhappy people, a few of the millions whose will is not being heard by those in power—that, and a damn fine play.