Thursday, April 11, 2013

The final question about the Final Solution?

The cast of Lebensraum - Photo: Natalia Boltukhova

In case you hadn't noticed, another intrepid small theatre troupe has joined the fringe - the Hub Theatre Company of Boston (no relation to the Hub Review, btw).  And, as you might expect by now, their programming is far more daring than anything you'd expect from one of our major companies.

Indeed, first up from the Hub is Israel Horowitz's provocation Lebensraum (in German, roughly, "Living Room"), which takes direct aim at the question that has haunted international relations since the world first learned of the Nazi regime's "Final Solution."

In brief - can the Jews ever forgive the Germans for what they did?

Merely stating the question no doubt raises hackles among many.  Even more disturbing is the idea that the answer to the question may be "Yes."  (Or, for that matter, "No.")  Or that history may slowly make the point moot.  (Just btw, before you write in, please ponder a few other queries, such as, "Should white Americans be forgiven for slavery? Or for their war on Native-Americans?"  No, perhaps not quite outright genocide, but still - forgivable?  Compare and contrast!)

So kudos to Horowitz, the playwright laureate of our own Gloucester, MA, for tackling - or at least trying to tackle - what amounts to one of the moral elephants in the post-war lebensraum.  Whether he actually brings down the beast, however, is open to debate.  His opening salvo sets up the terms of the conflict neatly: in the "near future," the German government opens its doors again to Jewish immigration, with full citizenship (in economic terms, a valuable prize) on offer.  In effect, Germany asks the Jews to come back.

But should they?  Could they?  Is the offer a real one?  Is Germany truly conscience-stricken - or truly trustworthy?  Or is there still some form of race-hate lurking in its national consciousness that makes any official promises essentially null and void?

Such questions imply dialogue, of course, but it soon becomes clear that Lebensraum is being told from a single perspective - the Jewish one (Horowitz himself is Jewish).  Thus a schematic frame is quickly assembled for the playwright's imagined Jewish response - some secularized Jews are intrigued (these scenes include an amusing and affectionate portrait, one senses, of Horowitz's own milieu); others, either more religious or just of longer historical memory, are appalled; still others, smelling a rat, themselves become militant - and militarized.  But the Germans in the play remain to some degree ciphers throughout; Horowitz teases us with the sense that economic pressures (where are jobs for the incoming Jews going to come from?) could possibly re-ignite anti-Semitism in Deutschland, but he also clings to the idea that the question of some latent German animus toward the Jews is essentially, well - unanswerable.

This is all completely understandable of course, but . . . the play's theme hinges on grappling with the moral status of modern Germany, so . . . hmmm.  While the old "unknowability" gambit has its spooky dramatic uses, it also has its limits - and sometimes we feel that Horowitz's feints around the issue are disguising the fact that his ambitions have pushed him to the edge of his considerable talent.

Which may be why (smart as it is) Lebensraum is somehow unsatisfying.  Horowitz does hint, it's true, at an intriguing role for secularization in this conflict; the son of his American family falls in love (of course) with a fresh-faced German girl immediately upon his arrival.  And unlike the other characters, these young lovers feel somehow divorced from history; indeed, the girl is not only free of anti-Semitism, but free of much characterization at all - in historical terms, she's a blank. (Needless to say, we immediately sense that her innocence will be a victim of whatever ironic plot mechanics Horowitz has in mind.) Far more compelling is the subplot in which a Holocaust survivor returns to track down the woman who betrayed him to the SS all those years ago. When fate delivers her into his hands, Tarantino-style, we feel initially an undeniable frisson of anticipation - but while I'm glad to report there's no stupid Django-esque pop-revenge at this juncture, I also have to add that Horowitz slyly side-steps his own climax.

Still, even if Lebensraum doesn't quite deliver on its promises, its hairpin twists and turns are always engaging, and it has received a scrappily compelling production from the Hub Theatre Company. The performances by the trio of actors who play all of Horowitz's roles (across several nations, classes and accents) aren't always subtle, but they're alway sharp (and their accents are always serviceable), and Horowitz's street-theatre techniques are forgiving of a few broad moments anyhow. Jaime Carrillo makes the most thoughtful impression (he seems quite a bit more comfortable here, in fact, than he did in The Motherfucker with the Hat), while young Lauren Elias and Kevin Paquette deliver more punchy versatility, and so are possibly more memorable.  Director John Geoffrion keeps his eye on the road and his foot on the gas; meanwhile Jason E. Weber's sound is sometimes over-amplified but always imaginative, and Michael Clark Wonson's lighting conjures several locales from what is basically a bare space.  As debut productions go, this is a winner (and it closes this weekend at the First Church in Boston); indeed, you could argue it's the most interesting thing on any Boston stage right now (and yes that totally includes The Book of Mormon).  So here's hoping the Hub Theatre can hold to its high standard.

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