Good theatre produces reactions; you feel compelled and excited after leaving the theatre. And I was energized after leaving Theatre@First’s opening night of Bent, a harrowing story of the not-so-legendary Pink Triangles. I’ve been disappointed by Theatre@First in the past- most notably their original adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, but even their Equus failed to move and excite. Bent exists on an entirely different level. Upon reading the program notes, I knew I was in for a treat. Director Nick Bennett-Zendzian has a keen sense of this play’s trajectory and purpose. He grounds his director’s note in Bent’s application to current events, making the characters’ journeys even more poignant and heartbreaking. Injustice, battles, and regression are harrowing terms that darken our evening, and yet Bennett-Zendzian manages to lighten the mood considerably amidst the turmoil and strife.

The play opens in Berlin, in Max and Rudy’s apartment, which is large but sparsely furnished. I was skeptical based on this bright and relatively uninteresting set. The opening also started quite slow, not from the hangover but from the headache of performing. The actors felt almost complacent in the role, and, if I didn’t know the play, I would have been confused by the unspoken tension between these characters. Max, played with extraordinary versatility by Jason Hair-Wynn, is stooped in recovery when the play opens; he’s suffering from the prior night’s mysterious events. His partner Rudy, played with emerging yet inconsistent talent by Rocky Graziano, bursts into the room yet lacks some of the vitality of a dancer. Graziano’s Rudy is snippy and whiny, yet brimming with love and devotion to his inconsistent lover Max. Some energy is missing from the play’s introduction and the best explanation is the pacing as the actors struggle to commit to their underlying tensions and purposes. Dan McConvey’s Wolf is certainly attractive, but his repetitive seductive glances quickly get old. Even the first introduction of conflict fails to excite; the officers are menacing in a merely superficial and snarky way. Fortunately, the next scene changes the show for the better.

John Deschene brilliantly portrays Greta, who defies explanation. You need to hear the longing and hurt behind Deschene’s haunting interpretation of “Streets of Berlin.” Every glance and every movement is beautifully timed and executed. I was astounded by the level of detail and purpose behind Deschene’s performance. And finally, Hair-Wynn and Graziano have purpose and commitment to their respective characters’ journeys. This momentum carries them through the rest of the show. I never quite understood Hair-Wynn and Graziano’s relationship and dynamics, but I think these choices were intentionally to contrast Hair-Wynn’s relationship with Zach McQueary, who plays Horst, a proud gay man in the Dachau concentration camp. So much of the play is in the surprise to the audience as Max’s story evolves before the audience’s eyes, and I’d hate to reveal too much. I would encourage the audience to withhold judgment on Graziano’s Rudy; some of his finest moments come late in the Act 1.

Act 2 is where the story picks up, despite the script’s dreadfully slow pacing. This production of Bent infuses each moment, especially the silence, with purpose and understanding, moving the story forward with each glance and sigh. McQueary’s Horst brings out a different side to Hair-Wynn’s Max, an unexpected surprise and a wonderful foil to Hair-Wynn and Graziano. While I felt a few of their scenes ran a little slow, especially in the dining hall, their chemistry is breathtaking. This relationship is electric and shocking in parts, but I wouldn’t want it any other way. The ending is moving, purposeful, and captivatingly executed. Bennett-Zendzian and his cast hit their stride in Act 2, with all of the right notes and necessary depth for these very complicated and complex characters.

Bennett-Zendzian’s directing makes this play a spectacle to watch. While he has cast some powerhouse male performers, his gentle and subtle direction is award-worthy. While I disagreed with some of his decisions, I couldn’t fault his very keen sense of the play’s messages, journeys, and moments. He and his cast have done their research, though they avoid anything but the slightest hint of a German accent. I understand why they chose not to employ an accent, but I still felt jarred out of the scene whenever a character would pronounce a word or name with a German accent. The heart of this play is not lights (though they are subtly used), nor the costumes (I don’t find anything in them particularly worth mentioning), nor the set (which lacks something in Act 1, but simply represents Dachau in Act 2), but the words and beautiful emotions in this play. This cast is aware of the play’s strengths and they bring them to the forefront without apology, without reservation, and without doubt.

Theatre@First’s Bent is a stunning reminder of the real talent and triumph in Boston community theatre. Their willingness to explore difficult, provocative material exemplifies true theatrical craftsmanship, worthy of the standing ovation on opening night. With their timely message and brilliant execution, I hope audiences attend this production to appreciate the fine acting and reflect on the play’s material. I hope Theatre@First’s next production, Lysistrata, is as compelling as this production; if so, we’re in for a real treat of a season! Catch Bent three more times, Thursday and Friday, September 20 and 21 at 8pm, and Saturday, September 22 at 3pm.