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|A CurtainUp Review
Arthur Laurents seems to be enjoying a good old age. Last year Lincoln Center revived Time of the Cuckoo and the Jewish Rep, an even earlier effort, Home of the Brave. The latter apparently was an agreeable enough partnership between the company and the playwright to set in motion a world premiere to launch the Jewish Rep's 2001 season in its conveniently located new rented home.
I'll admit that I was a bit leery about yet another attempt to wrest humor from the 20th Century's major trauma, and by an American writer without first-hand "holocaust credentials." The advance press releases described Big Potato as a black comedy about a survivor of the Holocaust who lures a suspected Nazi (the big potato of the title) to her beauty parlor in Kew Gardens, Queens. Kew Gardens seemed an apt enough background since it became home to many refugees from Hitler's oppression. The premise sounded dangerously more bizarre than black comedy, so when Mr. Laurents disassociated himself from the production, critics were faced with reviewing a play that the playwright had already reviewed himself.
Ignoring Mr. Laurents' pleas to retire this production, seconded by director Richard Sabellico, the people in charge of the company went forward with their official planned opening. I went, hoping Laurents' and Sabellico's reservations about the production and my initial reservations about another comic take on a serious subject were unfounded. Regretfully, the production is indeed as heavy and unfunny as a whole sack of potatoes (the audience laughed exactly once at the performance I attended). The play might not be quite as muddled and arduous if the cast that were not forced to stand or sit around while the Nessa (Elzbieta Czyzewska) holds them emotional prisoners of her obsessive need to preserve the memory of the Holocaust and play out her own Simon Wiesenthal Nazi hunting scenario. However, even less obvious direction and lack of catch-fire interaction, would be but a Band-Aid for this repetitive and uncomfortable stab at Holocaust humor.
Everyone, including Nessa, is stubbornly two-dimensional and humor challenged: Julius, a Nazi (Paul Hecht) who though the genuine article (as indicated by lines like "always you suffer the most") turns out to be just a "small potato". . . the assimilated daughter Rochelle (Joanna Glushak) from White Plains seems to have wandered in from a sitcom. . . the Vietnam veteran son, Sonny (Dylan Chalfy) adds an interesting but ultimately unsatisfying subtext. Even the always excellent David Margulies is trapped in the part of the husband who's madly in love with Nessa and also often quite as mad as his wife.
Mr. Laurent has developed his central character as a "one-track lunatic" who prompts her son to bitterly tell her "all you can is shout and scream." To follow the playwright's vision there's not much that Ms. Czyzewska can do except to shout and scream which she does without letup.
The inability of some survivors to free themselves from the camps even after they are physically liberated is a painful footnote in the painful history of the Holocaust. No doubt there are aspects of that monumental event that may need humor to give voice to subjects often too difficult to talk about. Another play, Camp Holocaust, written by two young playwrights, each the son of a survivor, is also having a limited run world premiere (through the end of the month). They tackle these touchy issues with a good deal more originality and humor than the seasoned Mr. Laurents. Anyone seeing Big Potato, should try to catch their play before it closes.
CurtainUp's review of Home of the Brave . . .and The Time of the Cuckoo
CurtainUp's interview with the playwrights of Camp Holocaust