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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
The Trial of Franklin Delano Roosevelt
By Elyse Sommer
Mr. Bernstein has jumped into his retirement career with both feet. His play combines fact with fiction wotj one of America's most beloved Presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as a character. As the title indicates, Bernstein has followed the old mantra about writing about what you know and brought Roosevelt on stage as the defendant in a trial conducted by Holocaust survivor Arthur Mandel (Jeffrey David Kent) in order to hold him accountable for sending desperate Jewish refugees to the Nazi gas chambers. Interestingly, the play's prosecutor took up the law late in life, as his creator took up playwriting after a lifetime as a lawyer.
So far so good. The playwright has, like a good lawyer, done his research on the period when Roosevelt, caught up in a war as well as a troublesome economy and political situation at home, didn't do as much as he should have to save Jews from perishing in the Nazi gas chambers. Unfortunately, though his legal background makes Bernstein's choice for taking Roosevelt' iconic reputation down a notch with a trial a natural, it doesn't put him on sure enough ground to bring off a play that sets that trial in a notoriously hard to deal with location — the afterlife. Nor does it help him to segue fluidly between three interwoven plot lines: The recently deceased Mandel's entering heaven and using his legal skills to conduct the trial indicated by the title. . . Mandel's metamorphosis into his younger self as a successful Berlin tailor who falls in love with and marries the beautiful young Leah (Amanda Lederer). . .several scenes in the concentration camp that Mandel survived but his wife didn't.
Director Macey Levin has done his utmost to make Bernstein's clunky script work, and do so within the limits of the New Stages' modest budget. But he can't overcome this play's fatal flaw: Though Mandel's interview with the keeper of the heavenly gate (Karen Lee) provides some much needed humor, Mandel is a humorless, unsympathetic character who makes this all about him and his personal loss.
Levin could also do just so much to make Mandel come to vivid life and warm up Jeffrey David Kent's uncharismatic performance. David Girard is better in the flashbacks involving the young Mandel, as is the very pretty Amanda Lederer (though their constant references that they will get out in time because they have high exit visa numbers is inaccurate-- the German Jews with the lowest numbers had the best chance). As for Eileen Epperson's very down-to-earth, coffee sipping God/Ged, nothing would be lost if she didn't appear on stage except as an occasional voice.
Fred Thaler, who plays the title character, is another weak link. Not only is his rather whiny Roosevelt less than convincing, but the trial and Mandel's me-me-me agenda point to the flaw in the basic premise. Bernstein gives Roosevelt some strong defense dialogue. However, his focus on Roosevelt as guilty of putting politics before doing the right thing and Mandel's strictly personal agenda makes for a historically and emotionally limited drama. The rabbi who speaks at Mandel's funeral in the opening scene has it right when he says that "his intense devotion to religious ritual led me to speculate that perhaps he was attempting to atone for some significant sin." Mandel isn't a heroic survivor and a brave confronter of a national icon but a man trying to pin his survivor's guilt on Roosevelt. An interesting premise, but it begs for a broader picture.
Breckenridge Long (well played by Andrew Joffe, as are his and Karen Lee's various roles) was indeed an anti-semitic monster and Roosevelt should not have entrusted him with so much power. But the failure to save more Jews fits plenty of other shoulders — including the influential Rabbi Stephen Wise of the Central Synagogue and Secretary of State Cordell Hull.
Actually, Bernard Weinraub, another first-time playwright though an experienced journalist, also tackled this subject five years ago. Weinraub's Accomplices was a more straighforward documentary about America's response to the German Jews' plight. Instead of an angry, dead survivor trying to avenge and re-connect with his beloved wife Weinraub peopled his play with more real life characters. Weinraub's counterpart to Bernstein's Mandel was 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. His battle pitted him against not only Roosevelt but a more fully fleshed out Breckenridge Long, his secretary (and Roosevelt's cousin) and Rabbi Weiss. Though produced by the prestigious New Group, Weinraub's play had a liimited run and few other productions.
Mr. Bernstein is to be commended for once more calling attention to a dark chapter in the history of the Nazis' snuffing out six million lives. But I can't help wishing, he'd done so in a more straightforward manner instead of this problematic heavenly trial.
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