NEW YORK There are a lot of things to cheer in ''I Am My Own Wife,'' the highly theatrical new play by Doug Wright.
But right at the start, let's heap praise on the astonishing performance by Jefferson Mays, the actor who stars as a German transvestite named Charlotte von Mahlsdorf.
Don't think ''camp'' or even ''flamboyant'' in Wright's real-life tale of survival, first under the Nazis during World War II and later the communists in East Berlin. The drama, on view at off-Broadway's Playwrights Horizons, is a provocative slice of history told with considerable artistry.
Mays portrays not only Charlotte but everyone else including the playwright in this evening fashioned documentary-style from taped interviews with Charlotte and from extensive research by the author.
The actor is a short, compact performer, who, throughout the show, wears a chaste, black outfit, complete with full skirt, a tight kerchief and a simple strand of pearls. But it's not this almost puritanical dress that makes his Charlotte so vivid. Mays totally inhabits the character. He speaks with a slight Teutonic accent and a conviction that this, well, unusual person couldn't exist any other way.
Charlotte was born Lothar Berfelde but discovers, as a teenager, what he believes is his true identity. A lesbian aunt catches him trying on her dresses. ''Did you know that nature has dared to play a joke on us?'' the woman tells her nephew. ''You should've been born a girl, and I should've been a man.''
It doesn't stop Lothar, and the details of his life get even more desperate. The young man murders his abusive father, a Nazi military officer, and ends up in a youth detention camp as World War II ends. One harassment is replaced by another, particularly after the creation of the Berlin Wall.
Lothar persists as Charlotte, gay and cross-dressing, and eventually overseeing a museum that includes furniture and other artifacts from a Germany before and between the two World Wars. Old phonographs. Music boxes. Even the remnants of a gay bar that dated back to the time of Emperor Wilhelm II are stored in the basement.
That past is wonderfully evoked in director Moises Kaufman's simple yet effective production. Kaufman, the man who oversaw such affecting works as ''Gross Indecency'' and ''The Laramie Project,'' uses designer Derek McLane's spare setting, dominated by large, double doors, ghostly lighting by David Lander and selected antiques to conjure up the past.
Much of the play focuses on Wright's conversations with Charlotte he was tipped off to her existence by a journalist friend and his attempts to turn her remarkable story into a play.
Charlotte died in 2002, a controversial celebrity in Germany, but still a potent reminder of the past. ''She doesn't run a museum, she is one,'' the playwright says at one point during the evening.
That sense of history, as well as a totally unique personality, are blazingly brought to life in ''I Am My Own Wife.''
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