He's a salesman with a swastika, a seamy womanizer with a reputedly small sex organ (see title). But what William Patrick Hitler really, really wants is to become a citizen of the United States. While this may sound like a farfetched horror story from World War II, Mark Kassen—who both wrote and stars in this fascinating bio play—has compiled detailed and diligent research to assure us of the very real existence of Adolf Hitler's estranged nephew (born in England as the son of Adolf's half-brother Alois). And under the precise direction of John Gould Rubin, Kassen's Little Willy offers a compelling portrait of a man who traded on the name of a madman in a desperate quest to become somebody—anybody—important.
But ironically it was this very name that he renounced while pleading for his (and his mother Brigid's) U.S. citizenship in 1942. The cyclical play pieces together Willy's own letter of recommendation to President Franklin D. Roosevelt while splicing in other defining moments of Willy's life: his tireless showmanship as a speaker and salesman (he hocked everything from automobiles to toothpaste), his wooing of Third Reich women, and his constant need to defend and assert himself, whether in prayer or in an interrogation room.
Despite an impressive and impassioned performance by Kassen, the brief 65-minute production often seems to skirt substantial information. The material lacks a certain potency, and the short, kaleidoscopic scenes rarely build to a level of truly satisfying dramatic tension. Of course, this may simply be an attempt to replicate the evasive nature of Willy himself, a slick chameleon who was willing to turn on a dime, renege on a deal, or sell out his family if it would bring him attention.
The production is at its most profound when Willy is at his most exposed. Late in the show, a woman (Roxanna Hope) throws herself at him, offering him sex so that he might rescue her young son from a concentration camp. Willy, so confident as a predator, all at once becomes impotent (in every sense), and he has no words with which to mask his utter powerlessness. "I'm just a lowly little car salesman," he protests. Hope, who joins Kassen in this and several other supporting roles, is a haunting presence, and she brings a stirring honesty and control to her characters.
Much of Little Willy's humor emerges in the juxtaposition of the trivial with the profound. Even as he interacts with victims of the genocide instituted by his uncle, Willy whines that he has never received full credit for convincing Adolf to shave his handlebar mustache. And he interrupts his own diatribe against Mein Kampf solely to plug his latest sponsor, Beech-Nut gum. The product placement is jarring and ridiculous, heightening Willy's insatiable desire for money, fame, and endless opportunity.
A huge projection screen fills the back wall of Clint Ramos's austere set, and Egon Kirincic's video design combines nicely with Nicole Pearce's pristine lighting to create an evocative, and rather ethereal, backdrop.
In Little Willy, Kassen brings a mostly forgotten (and arguably should be forgotten) man to life, giving us a peek at one of the original would-be celebrities. Adolf Hitler reportedly called Willy "my loathsome nephew" and paid him off exorbitantly to leave Germany. But with a last name that the world wants to erase from the lexicon, where does one go to escape? Queens became Willy's sanctuary, and, although he is now deceased, he lived to pass on his (new) name to three sons, all of whom still reside nearby. The extraordinary opportunist would never again hock a vacuum under the name of Hitler.