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The Just Assassins

Theatre Review by Warren Hoffman

No, that creaky sound over at the UNDER St. Marks Theater isn't the floorboards, but the oddly dated writing of Albert Camus's philosophical drama The Just Assassins (Les Justes). As much as Kerry supporters might be tempted to check out the production to learn a thing or two about violent rebellion, revolution, and regime change, Camus's play stays fixedly in the realm of the theoretical as opposed to the emotional, resulting in a play that, despite its lofty goals and good intentions, never really reaches dramatic heights.

It's no wonder that Camus's play isn't revived more frequently. Despite the fact that Camus was one of the greatest existentialist thinkers and writers of the twentieth century, the dramaturgical stylistics of The Just Assassins tend to symbolism, rather than to the development of flesh and blood characters who we come to intimately know and identify with. Thus, even with the multiple analogous ties with recent suicide bombings and terrorist attacks in Iraq, Israel, Russia, and other places around the world, Camus's play feels distant and foreign.

Based on actual events, The Just Assassins follows the actions of a band of Russian revolutionaries who are plotting to bomb the carriage of Grand Duke Sergei. Led by Boria (Mick Lauer), the group of five plotters expound on their ideals of a new Russia while confronting their fears and anxieties about committing violent acts of murder. Is it honorable to commit violence in the name of a worthy cause? The first bombing attempt is suddenly postponed because Yanek (Charlie Wilson) sees that the Grand Duke's carriage is occupied by the Duke's niece and nephew, and he cannot bring himself to kill innocent children, begging the question, are some lives worth more than others? Rounding out the band of conspirators are Stepan (Jake Thomas), a tenacious fighter, Alexis (Daniel Deferrari), a timid activist, and Dora (Elliotte Crowell), the group's fierce female member. Following the first failed assassination attempt, the group tries again and Yanek is successful in his mission, killing the Grand Duke, but consequently getting himself arrested and ending up in jail.

Despite the "intrigue" that the play presents, the work is less about suspense and more about questions of morality. The result is a show that at times feels leaden and preachy. It doesn't help matters that the level of acting in this production, with one exception, tends to recall the earnest, but overwrought college productions I frequently saw as an undergraduate.

The five young fresh-faced actors, many of whom according to their bios are recent acting school graduates, are the right age for most of the characters in Camus's work (the Russian revolutionaries were often university students in their 20s), but they never really connect with this material. True, it's difficult to say how many Americans (actors or not) could really identify or understand the gravity and emotional intensity of the events experienced by the participants in the Russian Revolution, but the cast often seems dissociated from the raw frustration and fierce anger that needs to drive the piece. There's lots of hand-wringing, loud ranting, agitation, and gesticulation, but none of the actors are especially convincing.

Wilson as the conflicted bomb-thrower Yanek offers a performance that is particularly lacking in nuance, subtlety, and most importantly, gravitas. Though Yanek is given some of the play's most important speeches about justice and love, one never gets the sense that Wilson believes (or even understands) what he's saying. As directed by Allegra Libonati, the actors rattle off their lines with ferocious speed and try to sound convincing, but the rapidity does little to cover for the vacancy of interpretation.

Thank god, though, for Elliotte Crowell as Dora, the only member of the cast who is adequately distraught and unnerving enough to actually communicate the proper sense of despair and hopelessness experienced by these revolutionaries. Even when she is on the fringes of the action, listening to the conversations around her, Crowell's eyes and body language are marvelously dead, never once betraying a sense of levity or equanimity which the other actors often unintentionally and distractingly give off. Dora is desperate for love, attention, and warmth and reaches out to almost anyone who will give it to her, most notably Yanek. It's hard to buy Dora's love interest with Yanek, though, as her proclamations of love, as penned by Camus, are so theoretical and cerebral, couched in philosophical arguments, that they come off as devoid of emotion. Still, more than any of the other cast members, Crowell best embodies the serious urgency of Camus's work and is exciting to watch.

The play closes with Yanek's death as he is hanged for his assassination of the Grand Duke. Everyone in the cast is appropriately downcast and yet something (a sense of true consequence perhaps?) is still missing from the scene. Though The 7th Sign should be applauded for producing work that is rarely seen, perhaps next time they should pick a play whose themes are a little closer to home and to which they might be able to better relate.

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The 7th Sign
The Just Assassins
Through November 21
UNDER St. Marks Theater, 94 St. Marks Place, between 1st Avenue and Avenue A
Schedule and Tickets: 212.868.4444