In the role of Christopher Isherwood, Charles Cooper declaims early in the play: "I am a camera." This is very possible, for Mr. Cooper is certainly not an actor. I don't know where the producers found him--perhaps in a road company of Blossom Time--but in any case, their choice is atrocious. Alternating between leaden stolidity and an eagerness which parodies the mannerisms of Julie Harris, his performance is a long dull thud from beginning to end. In fact, with Mr. Cooper tossing off his lines with the delicacy of a shot-putter, his soliloquies offer the most painful moments in the current theatre. Since John Van Druten's script has Isherwood on the stage almost every second of the play, the result is pretty appalling.
While Mr. Cooper's limited talent is a great liability, it would take remarkable skill to make the role of Isherwood meaningful, or even to justify its prominence in the play. Adapting Isherwood's Berlin Stories for the stage, Van Druten has tried to transcribe not only the characters, but the form of the stories as well, with Isherwood the passive observer of Berlin life in the thirties. As the chronicler of the life around him, the Isherwood of the book can afford to be passive, "a camera, with shutter open." As a character in a play, however, the same Isherwood is only static, a figure hovering, observing, but lacking any depth. Van Druten tries half-heartedly to personalize the character by picturing him as a hypochondriac, but his Isherwood remains only a foil for the other characters, a drab intermediary between the audience and the real principals of the action.
With little pretense of plot, I Am a Camera tries to reproduce Isherwood's impressionistic picture of a decadent city. Essentially, however, the play is no more than a character sketch of the memorable Sally Bowles. Van Druten's efforts to dramatize other elements of Isherwood's portrait--particularly the plight of Jews in a Germany rotting with Naziism--are remarkably unimaginative. And less significant diversions--the American millionaire, the comic landlady--are written and played as stereotypes. Because of Julie Harris, however, I Am a Camera successfully captures the Sally of the Berlin Stories. The immature, flambouyant nymphomaniac steps from the book as Miss Harris sweeps on to the stage with a garish pink scarf, a long cigarette holder, and delicious dreams of floating down the Nile with "sensual Arabs watching from the tops of pyramids."
While Sally is on the stage, I Am a Camera glows with a warmth which even the banality of the dialogue and the plod of the other performers cannot wholly dispel.