At some point, and soon, even the most dedicated students of 20th-century Jewish history are going to consider their entertainment options and say, “Enough already with the Holocaust stories.”
In the 60-odd years since V-E Day, we’ve seen War and Remembrance and Shoah, Sophie’s Choice and Schindler’s List, The Diary of Anne Frank and the insipid Irena’s Vow.
This year’s trend—a new one—has been entertainments in which Jews are seen not as passive victims of the German death machine but instead as rugged fighters, determined to land a Semitic strike against their Aryan antagonists.
First came the action movie Defiance, about the real-life Bielski brothers, who saved 1,200 of their fellow Belarusian Jews by building a camp in the forest and staging guerilla raids against German forces.
Next was Inglourious Basterds, in which a French Jewish movie-house owner and a band of American Jewish sadists manage to murder Hitler.
And now Playwrights Horizons provides another revenge fantasy: The Retributionists, which opened Sept. 14.
It’s yet another Holocaust story, and it’s the most interesting of the new batch.
Playwright Daniel Goldfarb builds on a historical truth: A band of Jewish Holocaust survivors called the Avengers in 1946 attempted to murder SS officers imprisoned in an American POW camp in Nuremburg by poisoning their bread. (Ultimately, according to contemporaneous Times reports posted in the theater lobby—and conveniently distributed to press—2,300 prisoners were sickened, but none killed.)
From that factual framework, he creates the fictional story of his four Retributionists as they attempt to carry out their scheme—and who are all, in various combinations, in love with each other. This makes it, in a refreshing change of pace, a Holocaust story in which the Holocaust is nearly incidental; the atrocity activates the story, but it moves along from there on the strength of the specific characters.
The Retributionists is concerned with the psychology of people obsessed with revenge, and how that obsession warps their lives and relationships. There are no Germans, no snarling dogs, no Heil Hitler salutes, none of the usual livery of Holocaust art.
Instead, The Retributionists is a suspenseful, almost noir-style thriller—will the Retributionists pull off their plan?—and an off-kilter love triangle (really, more properly, a part-polyamorous love quadrangle) in which the only character to find happiness is the one who abandons the group, and Europe, and her debilitating fantasies of vengeance.
Mr. Goldfarb’s characters can sound era-inappropriately ironic and hyper-articulate—when two characters reunite on a train, they sound like a pair of Noah Baumbach post-collegians with Eurail passes—but that anachronism gives the play and its tensions the added edge of currency. Director Leigh Silverman keeps the tension building and the four main cast members nicely balanced, and the minimalist, Art Deco sets and moody lighting by Derek McLane and Peter Kaczoroski add to the noir touches.
Adam Driver as the ringleader, Dov, is convincingly charismatic, if perhaps not quite as ruggedly handsome as you’d expect from a man with whom both women are desperately in love; Margarita Levieva, as Anika, the steelier of the two women, is dark and lovely and intense, perhaps a touch too much so; and Cristin Milioti, who pines for both Dov and Anika but can have neither, is the only one of the cast members with the pinched and pale face of someone who’s just survived five years in hiding. Adam Rothenberg plays Jascha—the blond-and-broad Jew who’s also in love with Anika and who passes as a gentile to get a job in the Nuremburg bakery—as a defeated but once vigorous man, formerly athletic and now beaten down.
Until, that is, he gets out of bed in an early scene to reveal six-pack abdominal muscles and pecs that could repel a Panzer division. Perhaps the next round of Holocaust stories can include a Retributionists-themed class at our local Equinox?
MORE LATTERLY, nearly two million Americans have served in the two active fronts of what the Bush administration used to call the Global War on Terror, and the overwhelming majority of them—those who weren’t horrifically injured, who don’t suffer from PTSD, who haven’t turned to advocacy for or against the war—we never hear about.
They come back to the United States, they return to their families and they settle into the daily routines of modern middle-class life, or at least they gamely try to.
That re-entry, from Over There to Back Home, is famously combustion-prone and therefore a good prospect for theatrical examination, especially before an audience of glib New Yorkers, who have strong opinions on the politics of the war but almost no exposure to its realities.
Bekah Brunstetter’s Oohrah, which opened at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Atlantic Stage 2 on Sept. 10, tries to explore that territory. And as with both of the current conflicts that lend the play its historical setting, it opens well, but it doesn’t quite succeed.
“Oohrah” is a shouted, multipurpose expression of enthusiasm among U.S. Marines, but this Oohrah is set in an Army town, Fayetteville, N.C., home to Fort Bragg.
There’s Sara, following Martha Stewart and Rachel Ray home-improvement tips until she’s surprised by her officer husband, Ron, coming home from another tour of duty in Iraq. Her sister, Abby, is a horny stewardess engaged to but not in love with a devoted doofus of an airport-security officer. There’s a wannabe Marine tomboy daughter and a demented ghost-of-soldiers-past grandfather, and finally there’s Chip, a mysterious Marine Abby meets on her plane and takes home to Sara and Ron’s house, where, inevitably, his secrets are revealed and his presence catalyzes the action.
There isn’t much of it. The dialogue is frequently sharp and funny (“I got a garden back there,” Ron says, trying to convince himself of the pleasures of suburbia. “I’m gonna water the shit out of it, and shit’s gonna grow, and I’m gonna make a salad”), but the main fault line of the play—how Ron attempts to readjust to home life—is more told than shown.
Of course it’s emasculating when Sara pushes him to get a job as a regional manager at Krispy Kreme, or at least “regionally managing something,” and sure it’s a bummer when he mentions an awkward interview at Home Depot. But a nagging wife and one unsuccessful job try don’t seem to add up to the crisis the play makes out of it.
Other unearned developments hobble the second act: Why does Ron shift from hating the mysterious Marine to confiding in him? Why does Abby decide she loves her fiancé?
Ms. Brunstetter has created compelling, well-drawn characters; placed them in a interesting and relevant situation; and given them many winning lines.
But her characters don’t know quite what to do with themselves—and it’s too bad the play doesn’t, either.