I cannot imagine the Studio Theatre taking on a bigger challenge than "Playing for Time," a stage adaptation of Arthur Miller's 1980 television drama of the same name.
Its subject is the unfathomable horror of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, as experienced by French nightclub singer Fania Fenelon and the members of an all-female prison orchestra, who were obliged to fiddle, you might say, while their fellow inmates burned.
Not only does the play require a cast of 24, far larger than the Studio generally marshals, but it also requires actresses who are accomplished musicians. And it asks them to plunge into a relentless ignominy, which starts with the shaving of their heads and extends to the baring of their souls.
There on the small Studio stage, director Joy Zinoman and her designers are attempting to re-create hell on earth, or the nearest thing to it that the 20th century has yet managed. For this, they all have my respect and admiration. I devoutly wish I could also say that such a bold undertaking paid off in direct proportion to the time and energy lavished on it.
But "Playing for Time," which runs through Oct. 20, doesn't ever dig in and take a truly theatrical stand. The script is episodic in the extreme and demands frequent changes of locale, sometimes for scenes that contain no more than a dozen lines. Television drama moves from one visual to the next, but in the theater, visuals remain constant; dialogue provides the forward motion. "Playing for Time" hasn't yet made the transition from one form to the other. What you will sense over and over again is that Miller is setting up the possibilities for a wrenching image, but there is no camera on hand to move in and record it.
Because of their musical gifts, Fenelon (Jacqueline Bertrand) and her fellow musicians were spared the gas chamber. Kept separate from the other prisoners, they constituted a bizarre kind of artistic elite. They played for arriving prisoners; they played for the Nazi officers; they played, while others were being sent to the ovens. But above all, they played to save their own hides. As long as their music pleased the SS, they lived. As Miller sees it, their plight is riddled with irony. Treated no better than beasts, they must nonetheless produce art. But under such circumstances, can art be other than an obscene mockery?
The 10 actresses who make up the orchestra at the Studio are of wildly divergent musical skills. Esther, the pianist (Wendy Shermet) possesses a professionalism, for example, that is not shared by Olga, the accordionist (Lora Tarantino). One of the violins is scratchier than the others and the guitars are hesitant. There's to be no faking it, though. The script calls for the women to rehearse before us, then entertain their captors, who close their eyes in blissful rapture.
As the orchestra leader (and Gustav Mahler's niece), Sarah C. Marshall wields a rigorous baton. Her brow repeatedly knits with steely determination. She knows that upon her efforts rides life or death. The single-minded fury of her attack could be both suspenseful and moving. But the sounds that are produced by the members of this woeful group are so erratic and occasionally comic as to falsify the play's basic premise -- that their musicianship kept them alive. I do not mean to minimize the Studio's hard work on "Playing for Time." By the same token, it is hard to avoid that old saw about biting off more than you can chew.
What remains is a series of scenes depicting the degradations of camp life, the jealousies among prisoners and the occasional tendernesses, and the sadism of the officers, which is only accented by the mawkish sentimentality they bestow on a flight of music. ("I have rarely felt so totally moved," purrs an ecstatic Dr. Josef Mengele after one of the group's concerts.) The prisoners are subjected to repeated beatings, while the survival instinct sometimes pits them against one another. Their days are an endless and awful litany of hunger, shame, humiliation and fear. "We must have an aim," Fenelon tells them early in the play, "and the aim is to try to remember everything."
Bertrand's Fenelon has a face of lovely sorrowfulness, and she exhibits a warm and generous manner that makes her the natural confidant of the other prisoners. But the performance does not accumulate much power and her singing voice is pale Piaf. A number of the scenes start out in French, then back up and begin again in English. Just why, I can't say, although the quasi-Brechtian device does reveal Bertrand to be a more accomplished actress in French.
As the self-centered Marianne, who is quick to trade sex for a crust of bread, Kathryn Kelley comes close to giving us a collective caricature of all the neurotic, flighty creatures she's played in the past. And easy parody is not always avoided on the Nazi side, either. But there are so few sustained scenes that the performers are not entirely to blame. Just maintaining a foothold is a considerable task.
The anguish in "Playing for Time" runs deep. But the stage cannot rely on close-ups to convey it, and words like "Maybe it's too late for the whole human race" do not, I fear, do justice to a terrible subject. For all its good intentions, the Studio production remains trapped between the conflicting demands of film and the flesh.