When it comes to a play about rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, nothing can capture the essence of his story better than the immortal satirical lyrics of Tom Lehrer. In the staging of "The Winning Side,” a play by James Wallert presented by Epic Theatre Ensemble, there is the good sense to project the lyrics accompanied by what is presumed to be Lehrer singing.
Among the lines of the song: “Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down. That’s not my department,” says Wernher von Braun.
The play with color blind casting takes a survey of the scientist’s life, with his going from working for the Nazis developing the V-2 rocket to being taken to the United States to be co-opted into the American space program. Apart from this drama, when one looks at history one can see von Braun as a major symbol of how the United States overlooked Nazi pasts and imported those who contributed to Hitler’s war to work in America. “The Winning Side” indeed.
The first act is devoted to the development of von Braun’s career with the Nazi regime. He is played by Sullivan Jones, who projects a mix of charm and business-like manner that serves to make him seem an ordinary guy at heart. The other two male cast members are Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr. as Major Taggert, and Devin E. Haqq in a wide variety of roles that show his admirable versatility.
There is also a strong romantic component in von Braun’s love affair in Europe with Margot Moreau, intriguingly portrayed by Melissa Friedman, and at first unaware of his Nazi past.
The second act explores the trajectory of his career. What are we to make of the play’s take on the protagonist? On the one hand, as telegraphed by the Lerher lyrics, there is a critical eye toward the duplicity inherent in his going from lending his scientific genius to the Third Reich, and then to the U.S.
But by means of the acting and the writing, von Braun is given a demeanor that undercuts the level of condemnation that his critics have felt. There he is, switching sides with ease and seeking to minimize his enemy past and relegate it to the background.
Ron Russell, the director, handles the different time elements smoothly, and stresses salient parts of the story. Chika Shimizu’s set consists mainly of step-up platforms on either side of the stage. Director Russell, also responsible for the sound design, uses a central projection of a whirring propeller coupled with rocket-launch noise to provide the space program aura. At the Acorn Theater, Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street. Reviewed October 9, 2018.