Newspaper article International New York Times

Sorrowful Stories, Rife with Distrust ; Holocaust Legacy Drives Tensions in 'Bad Jews' and 'Taken at Midnight'

Newspaper article International New York Times

Sorrowful Stories, Rife with Distrust ; Holocaust Legacy Drives Tensions in 'Bad Jews' and 'Taken at Midnight'

Article excerpt

The London plays "Bad Jews" and "Taken at Midnight" tackle the gravity of the Holocaust then and now.

A weighty topic should be no excuse for indifferent writing. Indeed, it could be argued that the gravity of some scenarios, whether rooted in historical fact or otherwise, requires playwrights to go the extra distance so that their chosen subject matter is not doing the heavy lifting for them.

All the more reason, then, to cast a quizzical eye on "Taken at Midnight," the debut play from the television writer Mark Hayhurst that opened Monday at the Theater Royal, Haymarket, after eliciting strong reviews at its Chichester Festival premiere south of London last fall. Running through March 14, the play tells the fascinating if grievous account of the German lawyer, Hans Litten (played here by Martin Hutson), who put an ascendant Adolf Hitler on trial in 1931 only to pay in due course for his actions in Dachau, where Litten died in 1938 at the age of 34.

The story is a sorrowful one, and Robert Jones's stark, angled set -- lit with shadowy, shivery verve by Tim Mitchell -- suggests from the start that we are in for a grim time. Mike Walker's brooding sound design combines with the agitated strings of Matthew Scott's music to create the kind of edgy environment in which distrust is rife and where a smile can soon give way to overriding contempt and hate. That is the character arc traced by Dr. Conrad (John Light), the Gestapo official who plays down the severity of Litten's fate even as he knows the atrocities that await; Mr. Light is suavely chilling in the part.

Much sensitivity and skill have been brought to bear on Jonathan Church's production, all of which makes one wish that the play itself were less pro forma than it is. Time and again, there is the sense that the actual events must have been infinitely more disturbing, and the gathering portentousness of the writing has the perverse effect of closing off the experience, instead of enlarging a playgoer's empathic response.

The play in essence is an illustrated lecture from Litten's formidable mother, Irmgard (Penelope Wilton, most widely known these days as Isobel Crawley in "Downton Abbey"), who strides purposefully in and out of view to narrate events that are then played out before us -- the bulk of them involving the incarceration and multiple humiliations of her son. The cut-and-thrust between Irmgard and Dr. Conrad is also returned to throughout.

This strategy allows the necessary information to be imparted -- about, say, the Night of the Long Knives in 1934 -- but can also seem pretty clumsy. No sooner does Dr. Conrad refer to being "with friends" before Irmgard Litten turns to report to us, "he'd been with friends, he said." The self-seriousness casts a faintly ponderous pall over the whole, as well, with vague glances in the direction of gallows humor prompting uneasy laughs from the audience. Ms. Wilton brings to her role the requisite stoicism and forbearance that allow Irmgard to remain self-possessed even when inwardly "screaming," but the play itself could use more primal fury. You are left pondering the prevailing self-importance when you ought to be screaming inside, too.

As this week marks the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the legacy of the Holocaust drives a second, altogether different recent London opening -- the American writer Joshua Harmon's "Bad Jews," which has transferred to the St. James Theater for a limited run through Feb. 28, following its British premiere last August at the Theater Royal in Bath. …

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