Monday, October 30, 2017

Seder: Night of Revelations

The cast of Seder at the Hartford Stage. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Sarah Gancher’s new play Seder (Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT) is dense and complicated – and I mean that as a compliment. Set in Budapest in 2002, it strives to find a way to dramatize the entire blighted history of Hungary from the Holocaust through the country’s reincarnation as a Communist state after the Second World War and its wholesale rejection of that ideology after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The protagonist is Erzsike (Mia Dillon, in a fine, restrained performance), a Jew who survived the war in Budapest but lost her father in a concentration camp. In the post-war days, the only job she could land was as a janitor at 60 Andrássy Street, which had been the headquarters of the notorious Arrow Cross – the Hungarian Nazis – and where the AVO, the secret police of the Hungarian Communist Party, were now interrogating people in the basement using the same instruments of torture. Her boss, Attila (played by Jeremy Webb in flashbacks), promoted her to secretary and began a long affair with her; she permitted it because his generosity helped her to support her family – a co-worker, Tamás (Liam Craig), whose marriage to her Attila himself arranged when she got pregnant, and her three children. She has long kept the secret that her eldest, Judit (Birgit Huppuch), who adored Tamás, was not his daughter. Judit has always resented her mother for cuckolding Tamás and, she thinks, driving him to drink. At nineteen, after the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc, she left home. And though she maintains a relationship with her sister Margit (Julia Sirna-Frest), who still lives with their mother, and her brother Laci (Dustin Ingram), she does not speak to Erzsike, who is agonized by their estrangement, and has forbidden them to tell her anything about the life she’s led since she walked out. As it happens, she’s allied herself with the center-right party Fidesz, which is working to eliminate all remnants of Hungarian Communism. She is on the board of the recently opened House of Terror Museum in the building at 60 Andássy, which Erzsike visits in the opening scene – only to discover her own photo in the “gallery of murderers.” Her own daughter hung it there: it’s her conviction that no one who worked in that environment during the AVO presence could possibly have failed to know what atrocities were being perpetrated in its basement, and so even the secretaries and janitors were complicit.

Got all that? It’s a lot. Gancher asks us to assimilate it all, and luckily she presents it with remarkable clarity. (I took notes like a demon during the play’s ninety-five minutes but when I sat down to write this review I found I didn’t need to consult them.) She may lack elegance as a playwright, but she has the skill to illuminate ideas and she understands what it means to dramatize them, and the ideas in Seder are gripping. Moreover – and this is striking, especially in our current American theatre – she doesn’t have an agenda. The play takes place during a Passover Seder hosted by Margit and organized by a visiting Californian (Steven Rattazzi) in whom she’s romantically interested, the first family gathering that Judit has agreed to attend with her mother in thirteen years. The premise sets up for a reconciliation, though we expect that it can’t occur without a great deal of confrontation, the rooting up of unsavory family history, accusation and recrimination.

Erzsike was an idealistic young Socialist in the early post-war days. (She lost that idealism when the realities of the Hungarian Communist state became clear to her, especially the official fabrications she witnessed as a secretary at the AVO office.) So she’s never had any use for her Jewish background;  this is the first Seder the family has ever celebrated, and she comes to it with at best a polite cynicism. (She calls it, in passing, “Jew crap.”) But the Seder has symbolic significance for the play, and I guess Gancher needed David, the American, as a device to set it in motion. Still, it’s a crummy subplot, and in the context of the family’s deeply fraught past and present (Laci’s job in the new Hungary means that he works for gangsters; Gancher doesn’t omit any of the ironic consequences of Hungary’s democratization), it’s hard to care about the character of David, a schlemiel who’s failed in every career he’s essayed.

The play is absolutely worth seeing, but I wish the production were better. It has a superb set (by Nick Vaughan) but Elizabeth Williamson, the director, cranks up the melodrama whenever she gets the chance. The climactic scene where Erzsike learns that Judit is responsible for putting up her picture in the “gallery of murderers” and storms around the room smashing the photos she’s kept of her long-absent daughter is so histrionic and so poorly staged that I wanted to look away. Worse, Williamson has left the actors to their own devices, and except for Dillon and Webb they could all use some strong direction. For one thing, their physical work is very weak, very awkward. Sirna-Frest, Ingram and Huppuch all have moments when you’re drawn in by their acting and you can see exactly why they were cast, but all three tend to fall into patterns, and the familiarity you develop with their fallback habits undermines their performances. The play’s flaws are easy to forgive, the production’s less so.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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