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There’s something special in Onyx’s one-man ‘Wife’

Doug Wright’s Tony-winning “I Am My Own Wife,” now at the Onyx, is a monologue that feels like a big-cast production.

Cory Benway, in a simple black frock with pearls, plays 36 characters in the course of about 2½ hours (with intermission). When it’s over, you want to cheer simply because the guy has gotten through it.

But it’s much more than one local performer’s tour-de-force. The story focuses on the real adventures of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, an East Berlin transvestite who narrowly survives the Nazis and the subsequent Soviet occupation.

It’s not until the first-act curtain that we find out our charming and brave heroine may not be as innocent as first appears. By the end, the tale of her life feels complete and rich in contradictions.

When the strands of plot come together in the second act, director Joe Hynes and Benway give the script a strong sense of suspense. You don’t just sit there admiring Benway’s skills. You’re eager to find out what happens next.

The action is framed by Steven Paladie’s beautifully understated set of a living room that reeks of faded opulence. And Jake Copenhaven’s lights work overtime in heightening the tension.

The talents involved here are remarkable, but it may be that the effort is more admirable than successful.

Benway’s commanding presence keeps you riveted; sometimes, though, he seems more about accents than people. Too often, his voice feels as if it were duplicating a sound, rather than reacting to a thought. Benway often resorts to mannerisms such as heavy, frequently blinking eyelids, and a typical and faked old person’s walk that doesn’t seem born of the body. And the pacing in the first act is occasionally deadly slow.

But by the second section, the actor and director hit their stride. Benway and Hynes find the right playing pitch, and Benway’s versatility and precision have you feeling as if the stage were flooded with characters.

It’s a moving experience, and one that I hope the actor and director will continue to explore together. I have a hunch Benway and Hynes could get much deeper into these characters if they had the time. It’s not yet quite realized, but there’s something special here.

Anthony Del Valle can be reached at vegastheaterchat @aol.com. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.

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