nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 14, 2006
The most exciting thing about the new production of Israel Horovitz's Lebensraum is the tour de force acting of its three players. I mean it: T. Ryder Smith, Suli Holum, and Ryan Young are doing extraordinary work in this show, and their performances are not to be missed. I didn't count how many characters they portray here, but I can easily and gladly remember some of the most unforgettable ones: a German engineering professor who daringly reveals that he's a neo-Nazi, and a gay Jewish Frenchman hoping to emigrate to Germany (Young); a cheerful, if overworked, middle-aged Berliner, caring for her aged mother, and a militant Israeli woman who is determined to ensure that her generation of Jews won't be anybody's victims (Holum); and, perhaps most memorably, a pair of 80-something-year-old Concentration Camp survivors who hate each other but nevertheless emigrated and remained in the same remote Australian town for half a century (Smith, who plays them both at the same time at one point). These and many others are rendered vividly by this trio of remarkable actors: the heart of Lebensraum is this controlled cacophony of disparate, divergent voices, all of whom want nothing more than the elusive promise of the play's title—literally, "living room": a place of one's own.
The premise of the play is set forth almost as soon as the lights go down, when the Chancellor of Germany, one Rudolph Stroiber, makes this astonishing announcement:
I extend an invitation to six million Jews from anywhere in the world to come to live their lives in Germany. I speak to you, now: You will be given citizenship and full privileges in this great nation. You will be German. It is my heartfelt desire to re-establish a Jewish community in Germany, and to reduce, as much as humanly possible, the immeasurable shame we Germans feel each day of our lives for what this country did to our German-Jewish neighbors, 60 years ago.
At the center of Horovitz's singular story is an American family, the Linskys, from Gloucester, Massachusetts. Mike, an unemployed dockworker, thinks the Chancellor's offer is mighty attractive and, with his wife Lizzie and teenaged son Sam, makes the move to Germany. It turns out that they are the first Jews to arrive under the program (or at least they're so designated), and they quickly become media stars. Mike finds work in the economically depressed town of Bremenhaven, where he eventually has to confront the prejudices (old and new) of the dispossessed locals. Sam, meanwhile, discovers the stirrings of first love in the person of Anna Giesling, a German girl at his school with whom he quickly and irrevocably bonds. Young and Holum portray Sam and Anna, beautifully capturing the innocence and hopefulness of these characters, who represent the future, a world where—is it possible?—Germans and Jews find lasting harmony.
Is it possible? Horovitz postulates a wondrously idyllic notion and then pokes holes in it as the often ugly realities of human nature and political behavior assert themselves. (It's hard to imagine, in fact, that a world leader could be as apparently naive as Stroiber and actually get elected nowadays.) Suffice to say that the grand experiment does not proceed as planned; as in life, there's no pat ending here, or even a conclusion—just the sense that the world will keep spinning and some people will learn from history and others won't, that some will reach out with love and generosity while others will live only for justice (or vengeance: two sides of the same coin, right?). In its wisdom, Lebensraum feels deeply moving and at the same time unsatisfying. But that's the world cheating us of a neat and easy ending, not the playwright.
Jonathan Rest's staging is excellent, keeping the focus squarely on the performers, who manage changes of scenery and costume with split-second precision as they propel the complex narrative forward. Susan Zeeman Rogers is responsible for the numerous simple sets and props, while Esther Arroyo provided the splendidly indicative costumes. Lighting and sound, equally invaluable elements of the whole here, are by Christopher Bailey.
Horovitz has written into his script a bare-bones, Our Town-y feel to the piece, with all the stage machinery showing, the better to remind us that ultimately Lebensraum is a theatrical allegory. In the more than capable hands of Smith, Holum, and Young, many important truths are revealed to us with great honesty, humanity, and compassion.