Complexities explored
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Complexities explored

Two 1980s plays make worthy comebacks

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Aidan Koehler, left, and Adam Gerber star in “Lebensraum.” Courtesy The TASC Group

For its first off-Broadway production in its 62-year history, the Stella Adler Studio of Acting has chosen Israel Horowitz’s “Lebensraum,” and it is not hard to understand why. The piece, in which three actors play 50 different characters, is a bonanza for actors, giving them the chance to create different personalities through their voices, their postures, their accents, and some very quick costume changes.

Adam Gerber, Aidan Koehler, and Mickey Ryan, under the direction of Don K. Williams, go at it with gusto, and their performances range from poignant to funny and back again. Ryan is hilarious when he creates two different old men having a conversation, just by changing his hat.

The professional wing of the famous acting school – which trained such stage and screen luminaries as Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando, and Elaine Stritch – is presenting the play at the Abingdon Theatre Complex on West 36th Street.

“Lebensraum,” originally produced in the 1980s, proposes an idea that must have seemed absurd at the time: a German chancellor invites six million Jews to come and settle in Germany in an attempt to wash away the shame of the Shoah. “Please come home,” he pleads, and the Jews begin to pack their bags all over the world. One family comes from Massachusetts, where there is no work to be had. A gay couple moves from France. An old man makes his way from Australia back to the house where he lived as a child.

The Germans try to manage all these newcomers efficiently, of course, but things go awry. German workers are not overjoyed to be pushed out of their jobs for all these Jews, and perhaps most bizarrely, a team of Israeli commandos sneak in to make certain the Germans are not up to their old tricks. The adolescent son of the Massachusetts couple falls in love with a young German girl, the daughter of one of those displaced workers. Their sweet romance is one of the most enjoyable aspects of “Lebensraum,” thanks to the very appealing performances of Gerber and Koehler.

It’s hard to write a satire when life proves more surreal than art. Today, Germany is Israel’s staunchest European ally, one of the very few to support the Jewish state on the world stage, and Russian Jews have been flocking to live in Germany since they were allowed out of the Soviet Union. It seems that Germany’s shame is felt more sharply in German breasts than in Jewish ones, if we can draw conclusions from the number of German cars and other products in Jewish homes everywhere. Even if the play is not totally coherent, its exuberant theatricality and the skill of the actors make “Lebensraum” an enjoyable experience.

“Pangs of the Messiah,” while certainly not a satire, has its own elements of the fantastic. Also written in the mid-1980s, this cautionary tale by Israeli playwright Motti Lerner is set in the near future, just as the Israeli prime minister is about to fly to the United States to sign a peace deal with the Palestinians.

They may be celebrating in Washington and Tel Aviv, but they are definitely not happy in Rabbi Shmuel Berger’s home in a west bank settlement. Berger, his wife, and his very pregnant daughter Chava welcome his son Avner and daughter-in-law Tirtzah, newly arrived from the United States. Berger is upset and wants Avner to return to America to raise more money and build more support.

“America’s a lost cause,” Avner announces bitterly, explaining that he has come home to help hold down the fort. How could this be happening, the settlers wonder, bewildered by the fast-moving events. Why does not the rest of Israel appreciate how they have sacrificed for the sanctity of the land?

Shmuel’s wife Amalia believes the other Israelis – those who do not live in the settlements – are hopeless sinners, uninterested in redemption. Shmuel insists that is because the settlers have not made an emotional connection with them. His daughter Chava is worried only about her strangely taciturn husband Benny, recently released from prison for killing Arabs. Tirtzah does not understand how Avner turned into a nutcase as soon as he stepped off the plane.

A large cast makes this production at the 14th Street Y by the Untitled Theater Company No. 61 a bit hard to follow at first, but once the situation becomes clear, the tension begins to build. Obviously, Lerner is not a fan of the settlers or their movement, but he has not turned them into cartoons. The characters are as well-developed as one expects in a play that is essentially political. Stronger performances would have made them even more complex. Whatever one’s opinion about the wisdom of Israel’s maintaining and expanding settlements on land that many people think will end up under Arab control, the people who live there have the same concerns for themselves and their families as anyone else. Avner is torn between his nationalist ideals and his commitment to his infertile wife. Chava does not know whether to follow her husband or her father. Shmuel and Amalia must deal with the terrors of their autistic son Nadav, as well as the panic in their community.

Lerner examines the growing distance between Berger and his more radical children. As the leader of the community, Berger is invested in the political establishment he has been wheeling and dealing with for years, but Avner and Benny seem to be listening to other voices.

What is the line between praying for redemption and taking active steps to bring it about? How does Benny differ from a Muslim shahid (martyr)? When this play was performed at Theatre J at the JCC in Washington, it caused controversy, and it may do so again here – a point in its favor. Lerner knows the situation and its potential consequences, and his play is designed to spur discussion and debate.

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