Less than a week before the first night of Passover, I was stuffed with many others into a little theater in Geneva to see a bonafide community show.
Community theater is its own special genre. It has undeniable charms. I still remember the tone-deaf performances we did of Bronx-born Neil Simon in our whitebread 1990s high school. Fools or God’s Favorite play differently in Wisconsin.
On this blog, I once covered a thoroughly Wisconsinized performance of Fiddler on the Roof, complete with payess-wigs and electric sabbath candles.
But this evening was for community theater of another sort: the earnest production. The show with a message.
This was a show by a troupe of amateurs sponsored by an energetic local organization that runs synagogue services, a gan, ulpanim, a cemetery, a library, a restaurant and on and on. I frankly admire them. The Geneva Jewish community has been generous in welcoming me: at this point, they’re responsible for half my social life.
What were the players presenting on this cold night? Address Unknown, the stage adaptation of a 1938 novel by Katherine Kressman Taylor that was originally put out in Story magazine and then picked up by Reader’s Digest. It became a successful book, and then, in 1944, a film noir from Columbia Pictures. More on that later.
What we were seeing was a stage adaptation from the early 2000s. Address Unknown was performed as a play in France, 2001, in Israel from 2002 (in a translation by Asher Tarmon) and at the Promenade Theater in New York in 2004.
It’s a Holocaust story.
More precisely, it’s a lead-up-to-the-Holocaust story, in which the audience sits queasily as a friendship between two men, both German, one Jewish, curdles and splits as one is seduced by Hitlerism.
The play, like the original book, is nothing but a series of letters. The friends are in business together: art dealers. They’re established in San Francisco, but when Martin (who is not Jewish) moves back to Germany with his family, he and Max (the Jewish partner) have to keep up by post and telegram.
This must have been great on the page. On stage, it means a series of monologues by actors seated at twin writing desks. Stage left is California. Stage right is Munich. The actors read their characters’ letters and occasionally twirl a pen or adjust a typewriter ribbon, adding just enough verisimilitude for the theater.
At first, Max wishes he were in Germany with Martin. His ideas of the country are out of date. There’s a line like, “How I envy you! … You go to a democratic Germany, a land with a deep culture and the beginnings of a fine political freedom.”
Max then hears from folks in Berlin that Jews are being beaten and their businesses smashed. Martin responds to his queries, telling Max that, while they may be good friends, everybody knows that Jews have always been scapegoats… perhaps for good reason. After all, “a few must suffer for the millions to be saved.”
His friend grows cold. So does the audience. “This Jew trouble is only an incident,” Martin writes. “Something bigger is happening.”
And so it goes. You spend an evening at the theater, and the sickness of antisemitism spreads over Germany.
After the murder of his sister by the SA, which Martin does nothing to prevent, Max uses his letters to exact a kind of revenge. This is possible because his former friend has climbed high in the German regime. Now, teams of censors are combing his correspondence. When Max sends suspicious numbers that sound like code, refers to “our (Jewish) grandmother” and calls on “the God of Moses” to bless Martin, bad things befall him.
Suspense; revenge. It should be a potent play.
But as I sat in that theater, packed by the loyal members of the local community, I had a recurring thought: is this healthy?
Jews, almost exclusively by my guess, formed the audience. Jews played on stage. (In this production, with multiple actors of different genders cast in the main parts, a total of 16 players appeared.)
Jews were presenting Jews with Nazis. Why?
The directors had, in a classical move, decided to represent the slide of Martin into Nazism by progressive changes in decor. But it is odd to see a (presumably) Jewish actress, dressed as a maid, carry out and dust off a little Nazi banner to put on her boss’s desk.
It was hard to stomach when the man playing Martin tacked up a flattering portrait of the Führer. The face dominated the whole auditorium. One could feel one’s older neighbors’ sinews tightening. Why was the community doing this?
Some truly elderly actors, a man and a woman, were given the part of Nazi censors. They sat at a table and flipped through letters. They looked like a couple you might see in Fort Lauderdale — except for their white shirts and red armbands. Was that really necessary?
We’ve gotten used to artistic uses of Hitler. Some are far more questionable than this modest play. There were the Nazispoitation
flicks made in Italy for the grindhouse crowd. There was Lillian Hellman’s version of Anne Frank, with the Jewishness drained out of Anne to make her “universal,” leaving her with all the vivacity of a bean plant raised in a cupboard. There was Mel Brooks’ musical number, whose name need not be repeated here.
Are these artistic renderings acts of power, by which the persecuted reclaim their self-respect? Do they dishonor the dead by making murder banal? Are they — could they ever be? — in good taste? That debate’s been had.
Address Unknown was certainly not comical. It tried to be honest. I respect every amateur actor in it.
But my question, as I sat quietly in the dark, was quite specific: why did this community decide to mount this play, in 2023, for itself?
You turn to the movie and it’s another story. Call me a Philistine, but this is art with a purpose, and it’s thrilling. That’s because the movie was made in 1944. It’s wartime propaganda of a really keen kind.
The claustrophobia-inducing noir style is perfect for this tiny film. The play has just two actors with more than a few lines. The film expands the binôme of Martin and Max to include their adult children and Martin’s wife and grandchildren. It’s still a small world.
In this version, the victim of the SA is not Max’s sister but his daughter, played by K.T. Stevens. She foolishly goes to Germany on tour because, like Max, she’s acting on cultural presumptions that are a decade out of date.
The lovely Jewish actress, whose name is Eisenstein, presents herself as “Stone” and appears in a play-within-the-movie. The movie’s director, William Cameron Menzies, a Scottish-American who began his career in the silent era, makes the play about a bunch of Catholic nuns.
In a grand and solemn scene — with the only big set in this low-budget special — Miss Stone processes in a wedding gown, trailed by veiled monastics. She kneels at the foot of a huge statue of the Virgin Mary.
Why the wedding gown? A Catholic like me knows that this is the way new nuns make lifelong vows to remain in the cloister.
It’s when Miss Eisenstein-as-a-Catholic is on her knees and literally reciting the Eight Beatitudes, which in shorthand could be called “the Ten Commandments of Christianity,” that a Nazi censor leaps out of the crowd. He shouts, shrieks, to stop the performance. A man in a black hat and spectacles is objecting — on behalf of the State — to the line, “Blessed are the meek.”
It’s a tad on the nose, but so effective.
What makes the film good and the play a staid dud? Timing. In the 21st century, the play reads as a reiteration of a theme — one that saddens without edifying.
In 1944, the film was brave. It’s so sharply drawn it’s almost caricatural, but in a war that’s what you want: a sharp sword. It goes up the throat of the dragon with a damning psychological portrait.
That portrait seems relevant now.
We see how small men, at first startled, join the Party out of tidy-mindedness and transform in a trice into implacable executioners. And we see how a bright mind — a Jewish mind — can unbalance the beast and pull out a partial victory in the end.
Not for nothing is judo Israel’s best Olympic sport.