“It is the most effective indictment of Nazism to appear in fiction,” proclaimed The New York Times Book Review of American author Kathrine Kressmann Taylor’s 1938 epistolary novella Address Unknown. Seventy-five years later, her work still packs a powerful punch in the form of an engrossing one-act play at the Soho Theatre, diverging from its new-writing brief for a piece that feels eerily contemporary in its indictment of Government surveillance and censorship and its cautionary tale of a country in recession swayed by far-right politics.
Most epistolary works lose their letter-writing basis when transferred to a dramatic medium, but adaptor Frank Dunlop stays faithful to Taylor’s premise. The story of Nazism’s rise is filtered through the letters between friends and business partners Max (in America) and Martin (in Germany), and the lack of direct communication serves as an effective illustration of their geographical and later ideological distance. There is some inelegance, as dated prose read aloud has a tendency to sound oddly mannered, but the style becomes less problematic once Dunlop gets into the meat of the story.
We might bemoan the lost art of letter writing, but here it is revealed firstly as a tool of emotional devastation and secondly as downright dangerous. Between late 1932 and early 1934, the friendship between gentile Martin and Jewish Max is torn asunder by the former’s transformation into a dogmatic Nazi sympathiser, leading to one horrifying act of cowardice and another of revenge – which, in a neat development, turns letters into weapons and makes the audience uncomfortably complicit.