nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 7, 2007
The Accomplices is not a good play: it's Bernard Weinraub's first, and although he's had a long and varied career as a journalist, Weinraub's debut effort for the theatre is ineffective both as drama and as polemic. Exposition is clumsily delivered (the opening scene, for example, has protagonist Peter Bergson interviewed at length by a U.S. Customs official, solely to deliver background information to get the play started); dialogue is stilted and unconvincing; and Weinraub's attempts to link the events depicted here to contemporary parallels are heavy-handed and misleading.
The production, helmed by Ian Morgan, is spotty. David Margulies is terrific as a pragmatically-minded rabbi, and Andrew Polk is very good as Sam Merlin, Peter Bergson's best friend (he gets to deliver a series of deliberately "bad jokes" that provide the play with some much-needed humanity and comic relief). But other very good actors, such as Jon DeVries, Robert Hogan, and Catherine Curtin, seem at sea here; and set designer Beowulf Borrit seems defeated by the shape of the Acorn Theatre stage (very wide, not too deep), with the result that even from the third row, there were moments that were hard to see and/or hear.
The play tells the story of Bergson, whose real name was Hillel Kook, a Palestinian Jew who came to America in 1940 to try to convince the U.S. government to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of European Jewish refugees seeking to escape Hitler. (Some of this story has also been told in the 1982 documentary film Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die?) Bergson and his friend Merlin enlist outspoken writer Ben Hecht to help them; they also ask Rabbi Stephen Wise to assist them, but he refuses. Wise represents the American Jewish establishment, and for reasons that are not clearly articulated here, he is unwilling to rock a boat that he presumably sees as tenuous to save the nameless victims of the Holocaust. I wished that Weinraub had given this position equal weight to the one espoused by Bergson, but the tone of The Accomplices is wholly judgmental and accusatory, and it is Wise and his followers, above all others, who are Weinraub's title characters.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt and members of his administration also come off poorly for refusing to help the Jews, especially Breckenridge Long, who was the State Department official responsible for immigration at the time; Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr. and FDR's advisor Samuel Rosenman, both Jewish, are lumped into the category of "accomplice" as well.
Weinraub makes a connection between these officials' refusal to aid the Jews and their counterparts' similar inaction in the face of genocides in the Balkans, Rwanda, Darfur, and other places; it's a valid point, but it's strained given the fact that the events of this play happen during a full scale World War, with all of the commitment of resources that entailed, while other events happened during (relative) peacetime, when more could likely have been done to stop the atrocities.
The Accomplices raises important questions that should not be forgotten; the problem is not so much that Weinraub's play is poorly crafted but that it's so much a lone voice in the theatrical landscape. The New Group is right to put this thorny topic before audiences and make them think about it, and they'd accomplish even more with a better script. But if anybody who sees this play takes some time to study the mostly-obscured history that it presents, that will be a good thing. (A place to begin might be this article about Bergson.)