Despite DT avoiding any mention of Jews in his Holocaust Remembrance Day remarks, playwrights are still writing about the varied experiences of Jews during those murderous years.
To run or not to run? That’s the question that torments all people trapped in countries sliding into war or already embroiled in military conflicts. It tortured the Jews in 1930s Germany just as it haunts Syrians today. Should we try to escape or are we better off hanging on? Three of the four characters in Alan Breindel’s new play “Through the Darkness,” currently at the Workshop Theater on West 36th Street, chose to run and kept running, staying a few steps ahead of the Nazis till the end of the war. The fourth hung on and got lucky. As we know from all the Holocaust survivor stories we’ve heard, luck matters just as much as anything.
In his first play, New Jersey resident Breindel allows the two men and two women to tell their stories with only minimal interruption from a fifth figure, The Writer (Jeff Dickson), who acts as narrator and steps in to speak as several other characters when necessary. The four span the social and economic strata of Europe’s pre-war Jews: Simon, the son of a poor peddler, recognizing the danger when his neighbor casually said that he couldn’t wait until the Germans arrived to kill the Jews, set out on a long journey that took him to Belarus and then deep into Russia, all the way to Siberia; Clara, another Polish Jew, had the good fortune to be blonde and blue-eyed, and passing as a Christian, also escaped to the Soviet Union; Helen, the daughter of a comfortably middle-class family in Lodz, was sent to the Lodz Ghetto with her mother, where she remained for most of the war; Peter is the son of a wealthy German manufacturer, who managed to get his two sons to England and then the whole family to the U.S. His story is a reminder that the rich have resources in any circumstance that are unavailable to others.
Breindel formed these composite characters from many conversations he had with Holocaust survivors, a process sparked when he moved next door to a particularly chatty man in the 1980s. That neighbor probably inspired the character of Simon, who announces early in the play, “I knew when to run.” As acted by Robert Meksin, Simon is the most fully developed of the four and the one who adds some humor to the narrative. Young and strong, he moves from collective farm to hideout and eventually to the Polish army in an almost picaresque series of events. Helen (Emily Zacharias) survives the ghetto and then Auschwitz through grit and perhaps her good looks. She hints at her mother’s urging to get more food through her charms: “Did Mama know the cost of the bread?” Helen seems the most psychologically damaged of the group, acknowledging that some part of her died and cannot be revived.
Breindel treats these stories with the respect they deserve, but his delicacy reminds us that survivor stories are often self-censored, not to make the tellers appear more heroic necessarily, but to shield the memory of others and to protect the sensitivities of the listener. “Through the Darkness” is a straightforward, moving telling of the Holocaust experiences of four characters, but it is not a deep examination of human character under unimaginable duress.
Peter (Alex Dmitriev) adjusts to life in America only to be drafted and end up in a POW camp. There his fluency in German puts him in greater danger. Clara (Tracy Newirth) survives thanks to the kindness and protection of people she meets on her journey. The Russians were especially good to her, she notes; not the Ukrainians or the Belarusians, though. That sentiment echoes many survivors’ feelings I’ve heard.
Directed by Leslie Kincaid Burby, “Through the Darkness” benefits from its fine cast and from the directness of its presentation. Although we have all heard many of these stories before, each one is unique and memorable, even when they have been condensed, combined, and dramatized. The least we can do for the survivors left among us is to listen.
“Frantz”–World War I Romance
Francois Ozon is a popular French filmmaker with a taste for melodrama. In “Frantz,” his latest effort, that melodrama is elevated to Masterpiece Classic levels. Set in Germany and France in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, the story focuses on the grief felt by the pacifist parents and the fiancee, Anna (Paula Beer) of a young German soldier killed in the trenches. The three of them are at first mystified and then deeply touched by the arrival of a young Frenchman, Adrien (Pierre Niney), who repeatedly places flowers on Frantz’s grave. Adrien’s presence is met with anger from the small community still reeling from Germany’s defeat, yet Anna gradually gets closer to the handsome and melancholy young man as she learns of his deep friendship with Frantz, conjured up in evocative flashbacks to a pre-war Paris. Someone especially hostile to Adrien is a man determined to marry Anna, despite her total lack of interest in his advances, and he stirs the crowd up to threaten the Frenchman, who leaves town suddenly.
Ozon drew his inspiration from Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 anti-war drama “Broken Lullaby,” but “Frantz” lacks Lubitsch’s characteristic wit and sophistication. The film seems to veer off in an entirely different direction when Anna decides to travel to Paris to track Adrien down and finds out that his stories about his friendship with Frantz have not been entirely truthful. This is a very pretty film with some nice performances, but you could just as easily watch any of the many World War I stories on Masterpiece Theater and save yourself the cost of the movie ticket.
There’s always good stuff to watch on TV these days, it seems. I’ve been enjoying “Travelers,” a time-travel series with Eric McCormack. People keep showing up from the future to try to save Earth from destroying the environment. Not the best show I’ve ever seen, it’s still very bingeable. A moodier, more unusual series is the four-part “Four Seasons in Havana,” about a disillusioned police detective in the Cuban capital. He’s cynical and sexy and exhausted with the endless ministry corruption, but he still manages to solves murder cases while dreaming of becoming the writer he always imagined he’d be. If you haven’t seen both seasons of “Happy Valley,” you’ve missed one of the best shows in years. Created by Sally Wainwright, it’s a gritty, deeply empathic portrait of a small Yorkshire town, where a police sergeant struggles to get over her daughter’s death while she raises her grandson. Beautiful performances by a slew of wonderful British character actors who you’ll recognize from lots of other shows.