note: entire contents copyright 2007 by Beverly Creasey
At the newly refurbished Studio 210 (at the Huntington Theatre), the Boston Playwrights Theatre presents Leslie Epstein’s provocative KING OF THE JEWS (through March 10 ). The title refers to the derisive title given Chaim Rumkowski, the actual head of the Jewish Elders in the Lodz Ghetto. Rumkowski turned the ghetto into an efficient machine which kept the German Army fully supplied. In return, the inhabitants of the Polish ghetto were not killed outright….just later, of course. Epstein uses Rumkowski as the model for his story and asks us: Is it morally feasible to sacrifice one, or two, or ten … to save the many?
Will Lyman gives a haunting portrayal as the Elder who counsels his fellow Jews that if they make themselves indispensable, the Nazis will spare them. To Epstein’s credit (and Lyman’s shrewd portrayal) we keep asking ourselves throughout the play, is he a collaborator or a deluded fool? A Schindler or a traitor? How can he comply with what the Nazis ask of him? Like Oliver Twist, an orphan appears in KING OF THE JEWS and the Elders are ordered to turn him over, which makes for a nice bit of suspense.
One by one, the elders make sacrifices to appease “the Blond ones.” The individual stories are compelling—and director Jon Lipsky’s cast is extraordinarily adept at telling them---but the end of the play is confusing, even misleading, leaving us to wonder if they all died like their heroes at Massada or were they just afforded a temporary respite by the maniacal doctor? Epstein’s play gives us a little FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (Paul Farwell and Michael Balcanoff are comic relief as feuding rabbis), a little WAITING FOR GODOT and THE CHAIRS (the message finally comes—from Christopher Bannow, the mute boy they’re sheltering) and a little MAN IN THE GLASS BOOTH (Lyman justifying his actions).
Ken Baltin turns in a fine performance as the power hungry café owner and Rebekah Maggor has a stunning transformation in Act II as his chanteuse-wife, forced to become the Nazi’s mistress. Robert Murphy is riveting as the man with a joke for every occasion and Bruce Ward elicits great pity as the man who doesn’t belong. Sarah Newhouse gives a touching performance, ready “to save dozens” from a death list and William Young breaks our heart as the waiter who once “served Sarah Bernhart.” Only Bradley Thoennes seemed out of character, reprising his role from PILLOWMAN as a developmentally disabled killer, instead of a calculating Nazi.