City Cabaret
Twitter Icon Facebook Icon

The Winning Side

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

The Winning SideDevin E. Haqq, Sullivan Jones, Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

Hearing Tom Lehrer's song about Wernher Von Braun, a world-famous scientist, some may remember the lines, "Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?/ That's not my department!"

Yet, the song continues, "Some have harsh words for this man of renown/But some think our attitude/Should be one of gratitude."  The satirical Lehrer song about by von Braun is sung at the opening of the second act, a stamp on this challenging play exploring questions about one man's politics, science and ethics.

At the Acorn Theater the Epic Theatre Ensemble presents James Wallert's The Winning Side, a fictionalized account of the complex von Braun story. Von Braun was a brilliant German scientist who worked with the Americans to help produce the liquid-fuel rocket that eventually resulted in the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing. The top of the play re-enacts that unforgettable announcement from NASA about the liftoff sending the superbooster Saturn V rocket carrying the Apollo 11 to the moon. A dramatic moment, accompanied by lights and sound and then silence. Von Braun, tall and dignified, steps out to address the audience. “To the stars, through difficulties.”

It is a journey from Germany to Fort Bliss, Texas and eventually to Nasa where in 1960, he became director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center and the chief architect of the Saturn V launch vehicle. A great American, some may say,  whitewashing the fact that during World War II, von Braun was a Nazi SS Officer. While his relationship with the Nazis was ambivalent, he studied missiles and worked to build the V-2 for Hitler. This was the precursor of the U.S. and Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles and space launch vehicles and were assembled by slave labor from Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp.

Toward the end of the war, von Braun and several other key scientists fled to Bavaria, surrendered to Americans and joined the Allies developing ballistic missiles and later launch vehicles.

It is an overstuffed story in a minimalist color-blind production, speeding along at a sensible pace by director Ron Russell, with time playing forward from 1943 to 1945, and playing backward from 1969 to 1945. Portraying von Braun is Sullivan Jones, an imposing militaristic  man, poised and charming, yet Jones, with all his moods of pride and passion, comes off as rather chilly. Two other characters who are not given enough depth to be portrayed fully are composite shadow/friend, Major Taggert, played by Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr., and Devin E. Haqq, showing his versatility in a wide variety of roles including John F. Kennedy, Neil Armstrong and photographers. Before and during the war, von Braun has a romantic liaison with Margot Moreau (Melissa Friedman), a French actress and cabaret singer in occupied Paris. She is first unaware of his Nazi affiliation and voices her ethical standards throughout the show. Friedman plays the dramatic French performer with panache but with an off-putting faux-French accent.

Scenic designer Chika Shimizu arranged two scaffolds of steps and platforms to sit at each end of the stage. Betsy Rugg-Hinds was adherent of the WWII fashions in dressing Margot. Helping to define the era are some popular songs, like "Light My Fire" and projections by Sho Hanafusa.

In the 1960's, von Braun had received various awards for his ingenious work. Accepting the Langley Medal for Aerodynamics in 1967, he claims, "I think it is a most unusual thing that a man in my position could have been given an opportunity to participate in a program as challenging as that of the conquest of outer space and, in particular, of putting a man on the moon." Sounds modest.

Yet, as a Nazi engineer in 1943 France, he had told his paramour how he plans to reach his destination, "You analyze the risk, the variables, the uncertainty, calculate the probability of all possible outcomes and move where the numbers tell you to go."

An opportunist, Wehrner von Braun played the mathematic odds of his life brilliantly.

The Winning Side
Theatre Ensemble
The Acorn Theater
410 - West 42 Street, New York, NY
Previews: Oct. 3, 2018. Opening: Oct. 8, 2018. Closing: Oct. 28, 2018
Manhattan Theatre Club Link
Running time: Two hours, 25 min.  One intermission.
Cast: Sullivan Jones, Melissa Friedman, Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr.,  Devin E. Haqq.
Playwright: James Wallert
Directed: Ron Russell

Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors
October 2018