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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Peter Bergson is a character forged from real life — a Palestine resistance fighter named Hillel Kook who came to the United States in 1940 under a more American-sounding alias to seek aid for the rescue of doomed European Jews. The romance which in real life culminated in marriage is a minor plot point for Weinraub and not as fully developed as Bergson's all-consuming passion to save as many Jews as possible from the Nazis' crematoriums. However, the romance does add warmth and charm to Daniel Sauli's excellent portrayal. The ending of Bergson's fiercely pursued endeaver can hardly be called happy. Sure, he did manage to save a substantial number of Jews, but not enough to make the final statistic of six million Nazi victims a less mind boggling and tragic crime of the century.
For those who know their history, Weinraub's docudrama will come less as two hours of surprising revelations than painful, anger-inducing reminders of the failure to stem the tide of incredible evil by our own government, top tier journalists and, yes, leaders of the Jewish community. It's a reminder made even more painful by parallel profiles not of courage, but pusillanimity and insufficient activism.
Depressing and difficult to accept as the content of The Accomplices is, it is nevertheless a gripping two hours of theater. Weinraub's longstanding expertize as a journalist and his still new skills as playwright make for a solidly dramatized replay of missed opportunities to save lives that is alive with historic characters and bristles with tension. Breckenridge Long (Robert Hogan giving new meaning to the term "ugly American"), the longtime friend FDR misguidedly put in charge of the State Department's immigration office, is the play's villain. But Weinraub fearlessly, but without excessive histrionics, topples icons like FDR (Jon DeVries) and Rabbi Stephen Wise (David Margulies) off their pedestals. The historic facts are blended into a fluid drama filled with dialogue that even though probably partially imagined never feels as if it had been cut and pasted from the author's research.
Whether portraying the lesser known characters like Bergson and his Rumanian friend Merlin (Andrew Polk) or the more famous figures from history, the actors bring them to vivid life, half of them taking on two or three roles. The New Group's associate artistic director, Ian Morgan, has made an asset of the double casting by having some actors portray two totally different personalities: Jon de Vries in addition to a patrician and rather over the top FDR, plays the outspoken Ben Hecht; the latter one of the rare Jewish writers who dared to critize the beloved president and his fellow Jews ("I write what I blieve and what do I believe? Jews are as silent as Helen Keller when their own brothers are butchered by Germans"). Catherine Curtin plays Roosevelt's bigoted cousin Laura Houghteling and Breckenridge Long's gradually disillusioned secretary. Andrew Polk (who first came to my attention a few seasons back in another Morgan helmed play, Critical Darling), does a nifty turn in the aisle as the outspoken Brooklyn Congressman Emanuel Celler.
Morgan's staging overall is terrific, with the shifting interactions between the many players in the drama handled without a moment's awkwardness on Beowulf Boritt's versatile and spot-on 1940s set (even the lighting fixtures are authentic and costume, lighting and sound design provide splendid support). One of the protest pageants that Ben Hecht cooked up in response to Bergson's plea for help is a dramatic highlight, cross-cutting the speeches by the pageant's participants with Laura Houghteling making a quite different pitch at an Episcopalian church.
There are also some nice understated moments. One such moment shows Bergson briefly drawn back to his religious roots after receiving news of his father's death and having a final encounter with New York's chief German Jewish congregation's rabbi (David Margulies in a finely nuanced performance as the not so wise spiritual leader). There's also the anguish on FDR's speechwriter Samuel Rosenman's face (Mark Zeisler) when his loyalty to FDR is tested by the plight of his fellow Jews and the Breckenridge Long secretary's mounting disgust with her boss's venality. While I can understand why the director felt it necessary to have Jon DeVries evoke Roosevelt's familiar mannerisms, I found that this resulted in a too actor-ly performance that often bordered on carricature. Fortunately, his Ben Hecht is more amusing than overly mannered.
With a war that has cost lives and resources as a result of mismanagement and unwillingness by too many to break ranks early on, The Accomplices is as timely as it is horrifying. Some may dismiss it as agitprop theater, but it's a story that can't be told too often. At any rate, it marks the welcome debut of a new theatrical voice.
If this play leaves you eager to hear more about Bergson and his fellow activists, you might want to attend the conference sponsored by The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust studies. Titled Jewish Activists Who Shook the World. . .The Bergson Group, American Jewry, and the Holocaust it features guest speakers that include former mayor Ed Koch, writer Pete Hamil and Eleanor Roosevelt biographer Dr. Rafael Medoff. For details see www.wymaninstitute.org
Postscript: As a rule letters from reader stay in CurtainUp's Letters page, but I thought this e-mail from Arthur Zimmerman in New Jersey was an apt postscript to my review: "I found the fact that The New York Times didn't bother to send its main Off-Broadway critic but a, to me, unfamiliar stringer to review The Accomplices a chilling equivalent of how that paper (and others) buried reports on some of the events in Bernard Weinraub's play far away from the front page. That's why this play should be seen by many more people than those who are actually likely to see it. Is it a polemic? Yes, but a necessary one. Is Roosevelt too cartoony and given made-up words? Probably, but Weinraub tells it like it is. Roosevelt was not the hero the Jews believed him to be and neither were their own leaders and prominent citizens."
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide