King of the Jews

Drama
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Editorial Review

Disorder Reigns in 'King of the Jews'

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 23, 2009

Better known for a diet of golden oldies, Olney Theatre Center is varying its menu this season, offering audiences a couple of world-premiere adaptations. It's a commendable change for the venerable Montgomery County theater, even if the first of the debut works, Leslie Epstein's "King of the Jews," turns out merely to be instructive in exposing some of the pitfalls in rolling out new work.

The Holocaust drama, based on Epstein's novel of the same title, concerns the moral dilemmas facing a group of Jews chosen seemingly at random by the Nazis to manage the affairs of a Jewish ghetto in German-occupied Poland. Set entirely in a cafe where the council, or Judenrat, meets, the first act explores the formation of the body and the second, the implications for its members once the organization has begun to throw its weight around.

This summary describes the events of Epstein's play more clinically than what actually transpires on Olney's black-box second stage. For the disjointed "King of the Jews" proves to be overwrought and unpersuasive, a work that wants to create fireworks without bothering to give its myriad characters any solid psychological underpinnings. In the effort to cover a lot of profound, contextual ground, the dramatist and his director, Cheryl Faraone, to tell us very little.

The atmospherics summon memories of better evenings of theater, from the jittery claustrophobia of "The Diary of Anne Frank" to the portraits of desperation in "The Iceman Cometh." Connections can be drawn, too, to the clientele marooned in the Nazi-era cafe of "Casablanca" -- whose screenplay was written by Epstein's father and uncle.

For all that, it's hard to discern precisely what "King of the Jews" intends to be about. After a Nazi officer (James Konicek, one of the good actors wasted) orders them to form the Judenrat, the dozen men and women holed up in the cafe spend a lot of time fretting about how to save their necks. Soon enough, lording it over their fellow Jews becomes something of a pleasure -- until, that is, they're required to collaborate in the Final Solution by selecting Jews for deportation to the camps.

You get superficial notions of the roped-in council members: among them are a Bolshevik cook (Harry A. Winter) and a fatalistic comic (David Elias) and a pragmatic cafe owner (Delaney Williams). But the myriad narrative gaps -- maybe the result of trying to compress the novel -- undermine the dramatic effect. After one of the cafe denizens is murdered by the Nazis (to a cry to his compatriots of "Jews: They're killing me!") the victim's wife (played by Valerie Leonard) seems to make an astonishingly quick recovery. Yes, we suppose her to be in shock. Yet even acts of incomprehensible cruelty need to unfold on a coherent basis.

Although about two years elapse in the course of "King of the Jews," a boy (Justin Pereira) on the run from the Nazis, who has been given shelter by the richer Judenrat members, inexplicably remains dressed in the rags in which he arrived. More crucially, the role of Judenrat leader, a doctor portrayed by David Little, is underdeveloped. His final, hyperventilating monologue, declaimed from a tabletop as the actor is bathed in light, feels as if it has evolved out of some other play.

The clumsy staging yields only the occasional strong moment, as when Pereira's traumatized Nisel finally opens up about the horrors he's seen. At other times, the sensation that comes across most powerfully is that this playwright still has a lot of work cut out for him.

King of the Jews, by Leslie Epstein. Directed by Cheryl Faraone. Set, Jon Savage; lighting, Colin K. Bills; costumes, Howard Kurtz; sound, Jarett C. Pisani. With Peter B. Schmitz, Timmy Ray James, Cherie Weinert, Carter Jahncke, Norman Aronovic. About 2 hours 40 minutes.