Worried about pleasing her ornery “Aunt Raini,” New York gallery owner Katherine tries to make her feel at home. She offers some Lipton tea.

“It tastes like dishwater,” her aunt barks. Katherine offers milk or sugar, but Raini rejects that, too, saying she doesn’t want to cover up the truth.

That’s a rich statement from Raini, a nickname for filmmaker and Nazi-glorifier Leni Riefenstahl in Tom Smith’s play, “Aunt Raini.”

Playwright Smith uses a fanciful setup around Riefenstahl’s life to pose questions about whether artistic brilliance absolves one from moral responsibilities, especially when they involve crimes against humanity.

Riefenstahl (Maggie Bearmon Pistner) moves to New York near the end of her life to live with her niece (Heidi Fellner) in the play, which opened over the weekend at Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company. “Raini” is what Katherine called her aunt as a child. Now it serves as a way to hide Riefenstahl’s Nazi past. The niece, too, has secrets that she keeps from her squirrelly new boyfriend, Joel, a photographer.

Smith’s script has some good lines. (Raini calls someone “ugly as a scrotum.”) But, overall, the play is ham-fisted and cloying as it attempts to comprehend the role of art in the Nazis’ ugly culture. At times it feels less a drama and more an essay with dialogue.

Director Kurt Schweickhardt explained in a program note that there are two scripts of the show, and with the playwright’s permission he combined them. It’s hard to know if that was a wise choice as the production plays out on Michael Hoover’s unchanging set, which has all the warmth of a room at the Holiday Inn.

Despite its flaws, “Raini” is worth a visit, if only to see how its cast of four (including Dan Hopman as Raini’s lifelong partner) plays characters who are cretins. Fellner taps a well of emotions as Katherine, showing us her fears as justification for her manifold lies. Fellner finds glimmers of something explanatory, even empathetic.

With a thick accent, a hacking cough and a slightly off-kilter wig, Pistner’s Raini is a woman at an inglorious end. She, too, is someone we see at a remove, and with a certain amount of pity. She has lost the glamour she used to have, and as she faces eternity, she wants to rewrite history to clear her conscience. When she crawls into a fetal position on the floor, sick and retching, we may feel moved to offer a cough drop or something to help her. But then we remember: Yes, Nazi propagandist.

Michael Torsch’s Joel is perhaps the most interesting character, a self-published narcissist so blinded by his own needs that he cannot tell whether his behavior is appropriate. Yet he’s the most sympathetic character in a show that at least tries to ask big questions.

 

rpreston@startribune.com

612-673-4390

Twitter: @rohanpreston