A May 9 Style review of the play "Either Or" at Theater J incorrectly referred to a "Polish concentration camp." It should have been described as a German concentration camp in Poland.
'Either Or': A Cog In the Nazis' Killing Machine
Wednesday, May 9, 2007
In "Either Or," novelist-turned-playwright Thomas Keneally has given himself one tough assignment: the story of the nicest Nazi in the slaughterhouse.
What, you may well ask, could possibly engender kindly feelings toward a person with complicity in mass murder? Well, apparently this particular Nazi was so tortured by his role in disseminating the chemicals used in the gas chambers that he tried to stop a shipment and warn the Allies about the extermination camps.
Yes, it's hard to dredge up much sympathy for Kurt Gerstein, the subject of "Either Or," which is receiving its world premiere in a well-directed if emotively thin production at Theater J. Unlike Oskar Schindler -- the hero of Keneally's 1982 novel "Schindler's Ark," which later became "Schindler's List," the Academy Award-winning film by Steven Spielberg -- Gerstein's role is limited to that of impotent bystander. He has no direct role in the saving of prisoners' lives and, for all intents, has only a tortured conscience to contend with.
The degree of culpability of someone dragooned into the killing corps is not an uninteresting question for a Holocaust drama. The title refers to the choice faced by Gerstein, an SS officer ordered to come up with a more efficient poison than the carbon monoxide then used in the camps. (An engineer and mine safety inspector, he is a champion of the soon-to-be-notorious Zyklon B, a compound employed until that time as a pesticide.)
Gerstein, a Protestant whose story is based on surviving period documents, is painted as a reluctant collaborator. In one of the play's most effective scenes, Gerstein -- played with apt primness by Paul Morella -- and other Nazi bigwigs stand outside a gas chamber in a Polish concentration camp to listen as carbon monoxide is spewed on a group of inmates. The anguish in Morella's mien is a contrast for the sickly grin of John Dow's proud commandant. That the scene is played out wordlessly adds to its eloquence.
But only occasionally does "Either Or" unleash its power. Although Keneally unfolds his story with an investigator's zeal for illuminating detail, the brutal irony of Gerstein's predicament remains more of an academic concern than a theatrical one. Much of Act 1 is a mere chronicle of Gerstein's religious, patriotic and family obligations, at the time that Hitler's National Socialist Party is growing ever more menacing and restrictive. A cold and judgmental father (Ralph Cosham), for instance, suggests the basis for Gerstein's conflicted feelings about challenging authority.
Perhaps incrementally meticulous foundation-laying was deemed necessary because Gerstein's motives become so hard to fathom: How, one is compelled to ask, can a man so repulsed by what he's required to do continue to function in the SS, let alone hold on to his sanity? Is it enough that in monstrous circumstances, a man considered the plight of the victims and did not divest himself of his humanity?
An even more pressing issue involves the characters themselves; the playwright isn't always able to put flesh on them. They feel skeletally constructed, as if on hand merely to provide dramatic reenactment.
That is most crucially a problem in the play's early events, built around the mental illness of Gerstein's sister-in-law, Bertha (Meghan Grady). She is supposed to put a face on Nazi victimhood for Gerstein, as a patient gassed in the asylum to which she has been committed. But the scenes detailing her deterioration -- Bertha is obsessed with Gerstein, for instance -- feel jarringly unpersuasive.
Maybe it's not a surprise that "Either Or" becomes a more satisfying play in its later stages, when the emphasis shifts to Gerstein's horrible experiences in the SS, participating in the decision to use Zyklon B and seeing its impact. In a second scene that all but does away with language, Morella is an agonized witness as a soldier pours a canister of Gerstein's poison into the chamber and condemns the inmates with a cruel, sneering farewell.
Horrors such as those compel Gerstein to action: Keneally portrays Gerstein as risking his life to reach out to foreign dignitaries in Germany -- members of the Swedish legation, emissaries of the pope -- in hopes that the news of the death camps will spur the Allies. Others, of course, were also trying to provoke Allied military action to stop the atrocities; coincidentally, "The Accomplices," a play that closed last weekend off-Broadway, explored foot-dragging by the United States even after the government was made aware of the camps.
Director Daniel De Raey stages "Either Or" with an admirable gravity. The actors contribute crisp accounts of the Nazi bureaucracy, from Conrad Feininger as an insidious functionary to John Lescault as a scientist placidly endorsing the use of Zyklon B. And James Kronzer's set wraps the play in the guise of classical tragedy; against the austere setting, Nazi uniforms evoke something like starched malignancy.
Morella gives a performance of impressive control. As his Gerstein beseeches us at the evening's end, bearing in his outstretched arms the papers he claims prove that he tried to do something, you feel a tiny, tiny flicker of sympathy. But you can't help wondering whether his tragedy is a minor one, and that he would be more deserving if he'd been able to do something that really mattered.
Either Or, by Thomas Keneally. Directed by Daniel De Raey. Lighting, Martha Mountain; sound, Ryan Rumery; costumes, Misha Kachman. With Elizabeth H. Richards, John-Michael MacDonald, Parker Dixon, Clay Steakley. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through June 3 at Goldman Theater, D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW. Call 800-494-8497 or visit http:/