by: Samuel L. Leiter
Just because the name Netanyahu hasn’t been in the news enough lately, along comes Iddo Netanyahu, brother of Benjamin, the Israeli Prime Minister. But, unlike his politically controversial sibling, Iddo, who lives in Jerusalem, is a successful novelist, playwright, and physician whose latest play, A Happy End, originally written in Hebrew, is now playing at the June Havoc Theatre in a production by the Abingdon Theatre Company.
Netanyahu’s ironically titled drama, which runs ninety minutes, is about Jews living in Berlin in 1932-1933, when Hitler rose to power and the plague of anti-Semitism swept Germany. Like the central characters here, Jews—or at least the relatively few who had the option—were faced with the dilemma of whether to stay or leave.
Clearly, A Happy End belongs to the category of Holocaust dramas, of which over 600 have been documented. Its story, however, is not especially original, and is reminiscent of Friedrich Wolf’s Professor Mamlock, a 1933 German play produced in New York in 1937. Wolf tells of a renowned German-Jewish surgeon, a patriotic World War I veteran married to a gentile woman, who plays down the threat of early Nazism, but who, along with his family, soon becomes the victim of anti-Jewish hatred, including the loss of his clinic. More familiar, perhaps, is Brecht’s “The Jewish Wife,” a scene in his Fear and Misery in the Third Reich (1938), in which an Aryan surgeon’s Jewish wife, aware of the danger she represents, prepares to tell him that she’s leaving, a plan to which he accedes, wishfully thinking she’ll be back when the mess blows over.
In Netanyahu’s play, which has had multiple international stagings, Dr. Mark Erdmann (Curzon Dobell) is a famous, middle-aged physicist at the University of Berlin’s Atomic Research Laboratory. He’s married to Leah (Carmit Levité), a beautiful, fashionable, and culturally sophisticated woman of forty, who’s having an affair with his thirty-year-old colleague, Dieter Kraft (Joel Ripka). To Mark’s astonishment, Hitler, a high school dropout, soon becomes chancellor.
As anti-Semitic street demonstrations proliferate, even respected and important Jews, like Mark, find themselves insulted by colleagues and their positions withdrawn. Physics is divided into “Aryan” and “Semitic” categories; cultural icons like the philosopher Heidegger and the composer Pfitzner are openly anti-Semitic. As with Professor Mamlock and his clinic, Mark has his lab closed down. Meanwhile, Leah and Mark’s teenage son, Hans (Phil Gillen), is a talented poet in love with a fellow student, the gentile Martha (Allison Siko), but his friends reject his new poem as “Jewish whining.”
Mark finds every reason to downplay the looming threat, taking patriotic pride—like Mamlock—in having fought for the Kaiser; he’s a German first, a Jew second. Persuaded by Dieter—who offers a simplistic explanation as to why he stopped hating Jews—Mark follows in Einstein’s footsteps and lands a prestigious job at Princeton. After he and Leah clear the air about her affair, they ponder their future. Will they actually leave? Is a happy end in store?
For all the play’s historical sincerity, its plot is schematic, the leading characters aren’t especially sympathetic, the dialogue is conventional, the actors are imperfectly cast, and director Alex Dmitriev’s often sluggish production is uninspired. Except for moments of anger, the actors, wearing Laura Crow’s period costumes, are wooden; this impression is underlined by the British accents used by Mark and Leah (the actress is South African-Israeli) to suggest their upper-class creds, when all about them use standard American accents. And several of the actors seem either too young or too old for their roles.
Blair Mielnik’s set of partial red walls and étagères, combined with Katy Atwell’s lighting, offers a template for the episodic play to shift from one locale to another, but the shifts still take too long; fortunately, Dennis Corsi has provided film projections of life in early 1930s Berlin to occupy our eyes during most of the shifts, as period music (think Marlene Dietrich) helps to fill in the time.
It’s unlikely that anyone seeing A Happy End is unfamiliar with what was happening in Germany in the early 1930s, so, beyond any educational purpose, we must look to it for some other illumination of the horrific events that would flame up as the Holocaust. Instead, perhaps out of a desire not to make Hitler’s victims seem more saintly than human, we see the narcissistic behavior of entitled characters too preoccupied with their own selfish interests to smell the stink beneath their noses. They seem to have no friends, other than Dieter and Anna (Lori Gardner), Mark’s faithful young secretary (in love with Dieter), so the insights of other Jews are absent.
A Happy End offers little that’s either new or enlightening. What we need is a play reflecting the current wave of anti-Semitism roiling Europe, not yet another look backwards, albeit with an ironic touch, to what happened in the 1930s.
*Photos: Kim T. Sharp (click to enlarge)
A Happy End
June Havoc Theatre Abingdon Theatre Company
312 W. 36th Street, NYC
Through March 29