WELLFLEET — It takes tremendous charm and chutzpah to pull off the role of Sally Bowles, poster girl for bohemian 1930s Berlin. Ruby Wolf, who’s still a student (she’s pursuing a theater degree at NYU’s prestigious Tisch School), already has those qualities in spades. Julie Harris, who earned her first Tony with this role in 1951, and to whose memory Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater’s 30th season is dedicated, would surely have approved.
But you can see why Joe Masteroff, in transforming “I Am a Camera” into the musical “Cabaret,” opted to punch up the script and redistribute some character traits in order to shape a more compelling story. The scenario that John Van Druten — a yeoman playwright of the early 20th century — crafted may have been quite shocking for its era (promiscuity! abortion!), but the structure is far too tame. In a prefatory “Note to Producers” preceding the script, Van Druten himself conceded that “the play is plotless.”
We first encounter the young writer Christopher Isherwood (Marc Pierre, a bit out of his depth) laboring over the opening sentences of what he hopes will become his magnum opus. The first step is to undertake the titular vow: to adopt the role of passive observer.
Set designer Christopher Ostrom has caught the artist-in-garret atmosphere just right. Isherwood’s boardinghouse room may boast vestiges of opulence past, but the burgundy wallpaper is peeling and the grimy windows now give out, notes over-sharing landlady Fräulein Schneider (underwhelming Nina Schuessler), on a view of streetwalkers. She may joke about adopting the profession, but — as we’ll soon see — widespread economic anxiety is providing the Nazi party with the wedge it needs to advance its agenda.
Watching writers write is no one’s idea of an exciting time, so in quick order we’re introduced to three acquaintances: dark and handsome Fritz Wendel (capable Ari Lew), whose history with Isherwood is never clarified; Fritz’s latest, as-yet-unconsummated crush, the “wonderful” actress-singer Sally Bowles; and Natalia Landauer (marvelously uptight Kelsey Torstveit), whom the hard-up Fritz — upon learning that she’s a department-store heiress — immediately determines to wed.
What ensues is not so much a story as a series of character studies. Two more interlopers appear. Courting Sally, the fabulously rich Clive Mortimer (over-effusive Robin Russell) leads her and Isherwood on with promises of an all-expenses-paid world tour. (We’re given to believe that Clive might have an opium problem, but as Russell plays him, it looks more like meth.) Then Sally’s mother, a Mrs. not Bowles but Watson-Courtneidge (solid Valerie Stanford), turns up, determined to steer her wayward daughter back to the straight and narrow.
Amid all these comings and goings, it’s the chimerical shifts within Sally’s own nascent personality that compel our interest. True to her stage in life (she’s only 19!), she’s busy trying on personae: One minute she wonders what life might be like if she’d had the baby (“how after I’d put it to bed at nights, I’d go out and make love to filthy old men to get money to pay for its clothes and food”); the next she’s picturing herself as a nun, “all pale and pious.”
Van Druten’s script may have had its day, but Ruby Wolf’s star is just starting to rise. She’s reason enough to take in this generally unsatisfactory germ of a play. Hers is a story you’ll want to follow.Sandy MacDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.