We have seen the Shoah treated as somber tragedy, as adventure story, as cartoon, and as farce. Now, in the new play “Eavesdropping on Dreams” by Rivka Bekerman-Greenberg, we have the Shoah as soap opera. The production by the Barefoot Theatre Company directed by Ronald Cohen at the Cherry Lane Theatre unfortunately mistakes histrionics for emotion, and manages to present a two-hour play about arguably the greatest tragedy experienced by a people without a moment of believable feeling in it.
“Eavesdropping on Dreams” focuses on the relationship between three women: Rosa or Raizel (Lynn Cohen) who survived four years in the Lodz ghetto, working as a hatmaker; her neonatalogist daughter Renee (Stephanie Roth Haberle) who devotes herself to saving babies and playing sex games; and Renee’s daughter Shaina (Aidan Koehler), a young woman who dropped out of medical school, broke up with her boyfriend, went on March of the Living to Lodz, and has just returned home transformed. Rosa is also visited periodically by the ghosts of her brother Yakov and Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, the “king of the Jews,” who turned the ghetto into a workshop in order to convince the Nazis that the residents were too valuable to kill, at least right away.
|Lynn Cohen in a scene from “Eavesdropping on Dreams.” Francisco Solorzano|
Bekerman-Greenberg’s characters keep complaining that theirs is a code of silence, that secrets permeate their relationships, but you couldn’t tell it from the action of the play. The three women keep on talking, talking about why they cannott talk, spending inordinate amounts of time on exposition, as if we have never heard of the Shoah and they need to fill us in on what happened. And their talk is less than one wants to hear on a stage – pedestrian and clichÃ©d, it lacks force or wit or credibility. Simply, no one talks like that, or they should not in a theater. Incidentally, Shaina calls her grandmother “boo-bah,” which was a totally new pronunciation for me.
The young woman has taken on a deep identification with what Rosa experienced, to the point where she begs her grandmother for ever more details. After a moment, Rosa complies, but the playwright never draws attention to the complex interaction going on, to Rosa’s tickled vanity at being the center of the story, to Shaina’s fear of making a life for herself. Everything is treated at the most literal, obvious level. That is surprising, since Bekerman-Greenberg is the child of survivors, was born in a Displaced Persons camp, and is a practicing psychoanalyst. She should be able to dive a little deeper.
We are too far from the Holocaust, and the Shoah has been integrated far too deeply into our culture – especially Jewish culture – for us to need another simple-minded treatment. If we want thoughtful young people to engage with this inexplicable event, we have to deal with the mystery at its heart. And artists are indeed doing that. In contrast to “Eavesdropping on Dreams” stands an extraordinary Israeli documentary called “The Flat,” which just won an editing award at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film is also about a grandchild learning of his grandparents’ Shoah experience, but unlike the play, it embraces complexity and ambiguity. When the filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger has to clean out his recently deceased grandmother’s flat in Tel Aviv, he discovers that his grandparents, immigrants from Germany in the early 1930s, maintained a lifelong friendship with a high-ranking Nazi official, going on vacation with him and his wife after the war, and sending gifts to his daughter. As obvious and tedious as is “Eavesdropping on Dreams,” that is how subtle and mesmerizing is “The Flat.”
The actors in “Eavesdropping on Dreams” are experienced and do their best, but they cannot overcome the banality of the material. (Lynn Cohen and Stephanie Haberle acted together in Woody Allen’s “Deconstructing Harry.” Aiden Koehler did good work in the much better “Lebensraum.”) It is too bad; there are surely important and profound stories still to be excavated, and there probably will be forever.