The People in the Picture: ‘Cheesy musical corn-coated with saccharine’

The People in the Picture: ‘Cheesy musical corn-coated with saccharine’

A scene from “The People in the Picture”
A Holocaust musical.
Those words really don’t go together at all, or at least they shouldn’t (although we know that the Nazis demanded such monstrosities at Terezin).

But someone decided to put them together. Not just in the privacy of his own basement, either, but in public. On stage. For an audience, made up of people who pay money to see it.

And the someone isn’t Mel Brooks, and the butts of this exercise are not the Nazis but the Jews, and the humor isn’t over-the-top outrageously brilliant but nonexistent (despite the flop sweat it wrings from its hapless actors as they attempt to wring jokes from dust-dry straw), and the scheme isn’t sublime but jaw-droppingly offensive.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you “The People in the Picture.”

This Holocaust musical-cum-family dysfunction soap opera comes from the Roundabout Theatre Company, which should know better. It is set primarily in New York in 1977 but often the action moves to prewar Warsaw, where a preternaturally untalented troupe of actors tries heroically to maintain itself despite the coming war (about which they seem to know astonishingly little). The head of the company in Warsaw, young, beautiful, and vital there, morphs into an elderly, befuddled, dying grandmother in New York. A family secret telegraphed so clearly that there would have been no need for Mr. Morse’s collection of dots and dashes connects the two eras, as the play’s conceit – that the people in the grandmother’s faded pictures come to life as she looks at them – lurches illogically back and forth in time.

There are so many problems with this that counting them is almost enough to keep the viewer amused, a task that should fall to the play’s creators but at which they have failed conclusively.

To begin with, there is nothing funny about the Holocaust. Absolutely nothing at all. Almost anything in this world can be funny – but note the word “almost.” Perhaps the world can be divided into those people who agree with this statement and those who do not, but for those of us who cannot chortle at genocide this show is an arid two hours.

Say, though, that you could be amused by the Shoah, if it were done really well. Even if that were possible, you wouldn’t be amused by “The People in the Picture.” The humor is heavy-handed and the lyrics are you-gotta-be-kidding awful. They do show the passage of time, though; as the Holocaust nears they go from moon-spoon-June to bad-sad-lad-cad (because you need a little comic relief, right?).

The next unnerving thing about “The People in the Picture” is how very un-Jewish most of the actors seem. Some clearly are Jewish, some could be, but some give off that indescribable but unmistakable aura that marks someone who never even met a Jew until his first trip to the big city. They are not convincing. The script, too, deals with generalities and stereotypes but stays far away from anything specific about Jewish life. For example, there is a mock wedding. True, it’s not to be taken too seriously. Still, the rabbi, dressed like a dancing chasid in one of the cut-rate souvenirs people returning from Israel used to bring home in the ’70s, administered the same vows to the couple that Kate and Will exchanged, and both bride and groom answered “I do.” The joke wasn’t supposed to be about the Anglican rabbi. Similarly, a young man reported that his brother had just been murdered in a pogrom; he was told that he should go on that night anyway, because the show must go on. He wasn’t told to skip shiva because that’s what showfolk do but because no one, it seemed, had ever heard of such an institution.

Another problem is the shoehorning of soap-opera-style treatment of the very real problems of hidden children and the traumas they confronted both before and after the Holocaust into this cheesy musical. It felt like corn-coated with saccharine.

There is one good thing about “The People in the Picture” – Donna Murphy. She is magic as she slips between the old lady and the young woman she plays. Part of her sleight of hand is her accent – sleight of mouth? She uses a thick Yiddish accent for her character in old age and no accent in her youth, clearly because she would have had an accent in the New World but none in the Old, when she was among people who spoke her language. More of it, though, is in her body and her voice. It’s almost as if two beings, one younger, I suspect, than she actually is, and one many decades older, both live in her body, and that they take turns controlling her sinews and joints and bones.

I could sit through only half of this show. My feet propelled me out of the auditorium at intermission and refused to take me back in as the lights dimmed again. I sat upstairs instead, comforted by an usher who told me darkly that I was far from the first person to have walked out on the production.

There is an even more satisfying way to deal with “The People in the Picture.” Stay away from it in the first place.

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