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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
The tag beneath the title reads "a life-affirming play." As I listened to Annulla Allen (Eileen De Felitta) hop, skip and jump through her life story at the Theater of St. Luke's where Emily Mann's Annulla is making it's New York Off-Broadway debut, I couldn't help wishing that this were more of a play.
Oral histories by survivors of the Nazi era are vital documents for preventing future generations from forgetting these barbaric events. Consequently Mann deserves high marks for her very worthy attempt to document the feisty Annulla's story as well as that of her own family -- and furthermore use her character's passionate views to give her oral history the flavor of a political drama.
When Ms. Mann, the artistic director of Princeton's McCarter Theater (see our just posted review of Beth Henley's latest play Ridiculous Fraud) first penned this script almost thirty years ago, there were fewer oral histories, stage and screen dramas and memoirs. The concept was to use an interview with the title character to create a sort of double memoir of the interviewer (the author as a young college girl) interspersing the recollections of her best friend's colorful and very verbal aunt with her immediate family's Holocaust experience was probably more novel.
Mann's use of real characters as subjects and a sympathetic journalist-listener served her well in her later and very successful play Having Our Say based on a book about the Delaney sisters of Harlem. However, using herself as the college girl narrator and the 1974 time frame not only gives Annulla a dated aura but the reliance on her subject's own words does little to make this a compelling piece of theater.
Eileen DeFelitta is a commanding enough Annulla but her skittering about from reminiscence to reminiscence as this erstwhile millionaire's daughter moved from country to country during the years when the specter of Nazism turned to brutal reality makes for a portrait of a self-congratulatory, highly individualistic, amateur philosopher without any of the pathos and nobility associated with more typical victims. Her account encompasses the year or more in Vienna that she spent posing as a non-Jew, how she got her husband released from Dachau where he was sent after Kristallnacht, her experience as an "enemy alien" in London and relationship with her sister-- there's a vague sense of possible untruthfulness to some of this.
The stab at making this a political play comes via Annulla's constant plugs for her as yet unpublished play about a world run by a women's party. That document, a mountain of manuscript pages obviously in need of an editor to whip it into shape as Maxwell Perkins did Thomas Wolfe's unwieldy Look Homeward Angel. It's also further evidence of Annulla's strong but undisciplined personality.
Josh Iacovelli has created a well-detailed London apartment kitchen with one eye-catching abstract prop-- a giant manual typewriter set on its side at stage left. Pamela Hall keeps Ms. De Felitta busy with making endless cups of tea as well as preparing a big pot of soup. However, these domestic activities come off as frantic attempts to make a play from what is essentially a monologue and had me thinking that Annulla would have been a richer and more moving character in one of Isaac Bashevis Singer's stories about Hitler refugees. As things stand, Neva Small's voice-overs as the playwright's young self, are actually more arresting and " life-affirming" than Annulla's memories.
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