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A CurtainUp Connecticut Review
The executioners aren't the only responsible ones.
Mia Dillon as a matriarch with a past (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)
Those dreaded holiday family gatherings get yet another coat of paint in Seder, Sarah Gancher's drama now spinning its wheels in its world premiere at Hartford Stage. Instead of Thanksgiving arguments with Uncle Lester and Aunt Liz, we have Passover quarrels between Hungarian mother Erzsike and her estranged daughter Judit. Loud disagreements over politics and upbringing explode into the smashed memories of characters we simply don't care about.

Based on a true story, the play doesn't get much beyond “you did / I didn't." Hinting at using the eponymous Passover meal to probe into a people's rebelliousness and determination to overturn oppressors and escape from captivity, the work devolves into a repetitious domestic imbroglio.

The setting is Budapest, the time is 2002, thirteen years after the destruction of the Berlin Wall," according to the program. Erzsike, having worked for the Soviets when they occupied Hungary, finds her picture on the Wall of Murderers in the newly created House of Terror. The latter is an actual Budapest museum on the former site of AVO, the Gestapo-like secret police. Describing itself as "a monument to the memory of those held captive, tortured and killed in this building," the museum recreates those terrifying years.

Protesting that she was a lowly secretary who actually tried to help innocent prisoners by altering records, Erzsike recounts her battles for food and protection. As the mistress of Attila, a handsome, ruthless Russian official, she entered into a sham marriage with sad-sack Tamas, again to protect herself and family. Of her three children (two girls, one boy), it's the older daughter who feels betrayed by a mother who worked for the hated secret police.

The evening becomes a back-and-forth between horrified Judit and self—justifying Erzsike. Son, other daughter and an American visitor attempt to follow the Haggadah, imbibe wine and munch matzohs. Men from Erzsike's past emerge, like the prophet Elijah, mid-celebration.

"I did the best I could, I just did as I was told," says the self-exculpatory Erzsike. In answer, Judit's platitudinous, "A good person stands up for humanity," is equally familiar. (She does get off the best line, though, when she announces she'll run for Parliament to make Hungary great again.")

Besides the warmed-over justifications, the evening is neither frightening nor incisive. Once the initial argument is made, there's no place to go and we get little sense of what really went on during the occupation.

Fortunately, there's David, the language-mangling American, to leaven things. As played by the pleasing, Woody Allen-ish Steven Rattazzi, his good nature, along with his desire to get through the ceremony without bloodshed, do more to keep the play on track than the supposed deep revelations.

Mia Dillon's Erzsike dominates the play as she does the family: fiercely maternal yet self-protective, her rationalizations tinged with guilt and insecurity, Dillon expertly creates a character that embodies ambiguities. Julia Sirna-Frest starts indistinctly as Margit, the other daughter, before finding her groove. Jeremy Webb is a sly Attila, with Liam Craig a sympathetic Tamas. As son Laci, Dustin Ingram grows from a caustic nonentity into a man of conviction. As rebellious daughter Judit, Brigit Huppuch is properly pompous but doesn't go much beyond screaming at everyone.

Director Elizabeth Williamson paces and blocks the action as best she can. There's not much variety in the groupings but, then, there's not much variety in the material she's been given, either.

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Seder by Sarah Gancher
Directed by Elizabeth Williamson
CAST: Mia Dillon (Erzsike), Steven Rattazzi (David), Julia Sirna-Frest (Margit), Dustin Ingram (Laci), Jeremy Webb (Attila), Birgit Huppuch (Judit), Liam Craig (Tamás)
Scenic Design: Nick Vaughan
Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi
Lighting Design: Marcus Dilliard
Sound Design: Jane Shaw
Wig Design: Jodi Stone
Fight Choreographer: Greg Webster
Script Consultant: Jocelyn Clarke
Casting: Laura Stanczyk
Production Stage Manager: Lori Ann Zepp
Assistant Stage Manager: Merrick A.B. Williams
Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe
General Manager: Emily Van Scoy
Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson
Running Time: 95 minutes (no intermission)
Hartford Stage, Hartford, Conn., Oct. 19-Nov. 12, 2017
Reviewed: Oct. 28, 2017

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