note: entire contents copyright 2007 by Carl A. Rossi
Rabbi Martini … Michael Balcanoff
Fried Rievesaltes … Ken Baltin
Nisel Lipiczany … Christopher Bannow
Rabbi Verble … Paul D. Farwell
I. C. Trumpelman … Will Lyman
Madame Rievesaltes … Rebekah Maggor
Schotter … Robert D. Murphy
Dorka Kleinweiss … Sarah Newhouse
Herman Gutfriend … Dan Roberto
F. X. Wohltat … Bradley Thoennes
M. M. Schpitalnik …Bruce Ward
Ferdinand Philosoff … William Young
Leslie Epstein’s KING OF THE JEWS, premiering through Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, is his brilliant adaptation of his 1979 Holocaust novel. The novel, in turn, is based upon the Polish Jew Chaim Rumkowski, the Nazi-appointed head of the Judenrat (i.e. a Jewish Council of Elders) for the Lodz ghetto. Rumkowski’s continuing controversy hinges on the ruthless steps he took to keep his ghetto from being liquidated, reducing it to a slave labor camp that furnished supplies to the Nazis and deporting Jews on demand; Rumkowski himself died in Auschwitz in 1944. In Mr. Epstein’s novel, the mysterious Doctor Trumpelman gains control of his fictional town’s orphanage, keeping its children under his wing as he carries out his Rumkowski-like schemes. KING OF THE JEWS is a rambling, at times confusing, novel with an all-too modern slant (i.e. “Now if I were there, I would…”). Nor is the novel’s tone consistent: horrifying realism collides with Absurdism, and Mr. Epstein pulls out all the stops along the way: Trumpelman, in old age, turns superhuman, transcending several death scenes; the orphan Nisel Lipiczany, saddled with an enlarged heart, also survives all obstacles and ends the novel by sailing, presumably, for America (and who is telling the tale in first-person narrative?). Thus, Mr. Epstein’s dramatization is a double-miracle: first, I expected the entire book, cinematic-style, with a few actors playing all of the roles, including the children, and with set-pieces doubling as tables, trains, and such --- instead, Mr. Epstein has chosen two passages and created a work that can stand on its own. In Act One, ten trapped Jews in the Astoria Café are forced to form a Judenrat, then and there; in Act Two, they must start drawing up deportation lists --- that may be the plot, but it is two engrossing hours, nonetheless, as the characters come to realize that everyone in their ghetto, including themselves, are doomed. Yet the horror is wrapped in a warm, European coziness: Mr. Epstein clearly loves his characters, even its sole Nazi villain, and if one declares KING OF THE JEWS to be a black comedy, that is because today’s audiences have the hindsight that these guardedly optimistic Jews have not.
Secondly, Mr. Epstein grounds KING OF THE JEWS in the Unities of time and space (and without directly addressing the audience!). Today’s playwrights are so influenced by movies, television and video games that many have learnt their craft without knowing how gripping stage writing can become through one-set situations. Such writing is a tricky process: the dusting lines must be subtly slipped past the audience’s nose, the characters must already be “planted”, the playwright must conceive onstage business to cover an offstage absence yet make said business a vital part of the plot, and so on. But the rewards are worth the effort: the characterizations will be richer as they will have been turned this way and that in all their dimensions, and since character propels the plot, the script should run like a purring Rolls Royce, which KING OF THE JEWS does triumphantly, and I urge all of Boston’s playwrights to attend for this invaluable lesson, alone. The only flaws are Trumpelman now taking awhile to stand out from the crowd (he is more shadowy than ever) and Nisel, a mute stranger throughout the evening, becoming an eleven o’clock Greek messenger whose monologue is all the stagier when coming after such well-hidden machinery.
Mr. Epstein is well served by playwright-director Jon Lipsky who pleads a good case that only a fellow playwright can midwife a new script with such firm, loving respect, seeing its strengths and weaknesses the way an architect’s eye can size up another’s blueprint --- his tableaus are deceptively relaxed in its give-and-take but tighten into a collective animal quickness when danger is near, remaining congestion-free in their din. His ensemble is easily the best of the season --- I honestly do not see how they can be matched, especially when given the chance to sink their teeth into such brave, new material, and in Boston, too! --- Mr. Epstein should insist that this cast tour with his play for all its worth before releasing it to other theatres; they are that golden --- and they must play in as intimate a setting as its current home at the Huntington’s Lane-Comley Studio. I’d not seen Will Lyman for some time and it is good to renew his acquaintance as Trumpelman, a character that demands a lion-in-waiting and Mr. Lyman’s stature and voice gradually illuminate the role and vice-versa, becoming, in the end, an unraveling lion in a cage, and he is well-matched and contrasted by the amused contempt of Rebekah Maggor’s Madame Rievesaltes (an evening of Shakespearean duets, anyone?). Among the others, Sarah Newhouse’s unsmiling hardness keeps Dorka Kleinweiss from dissolving into mere hysteria, Bradley Thoennes’ Wohltat is the grinning, piggish Nazi of your nightmares, and Michael Balconoff and Paul D. Farwell are endearing Mutt-and-Jeff rabbis.
Set designer Jon Savage has the audience passing through an evocative exterior of the Astoria Café en route to their seats, and said entrance later gives way to a burst of male nudity --- the third stage-Adam I’ve seen in three months. “Banned in Boston” is definitely a thing of the past.