Itís hard to imagine weightier subject matter than the plot of The Flame Keeper, a new play by Amos Kamil, performing at the 47th Street Theater. Two survivors of W.W. II meet in a Berlin cigar shop in 1946. Dr. Julius Reiter, a Jewish philosopher, who settled in Palestine after escaping from Germany before the war, has returned to Berlin. The other, Ernst Gruber, is a German who bought a Jewish owned cigar shop from the Nazis and is apparently quite comfortable in his position as a shopkeeper.
When we meet the two, we learn that Dr. Rieter has been tormenting Herr Gruber daily for a considerable period of time. In particular, he likes to make the shop owner climb up and down a ladder, thereby aggravating a bad leg, to fetch cigars that he has no intention of buying. He also enjoys demanding, over and over, that Gruber (the flame keeper) light the cheap cigar he finally purchases. Throughout the play they carry on a philosophical debate about God, man, the formation of the State of Israel and other issues. Gruber, in an obvious state of controlled fury, acts the well mannered, polite German, and does whatever his customer requires. The conflicts, philosophical discussions and eventual denouement are the essence of The Flame Keeper.
Ernest Gruber and Dr. Reiter are the types of roles from which theatrical careers can blossom. They are also the parts that must be very carefully directed, or actors may begin at such emotional excess that they have little room for expansion. This seems to be a problem in this production, which has the actors in full throttle from the very first scene to the last. Lenny Mandel, who plays the character of Dr. Reiter, is screaming from his entrance to the climax. He also speaks with a poor German accent that is so noticeable it becomes a distraction. Playing opposite a performance lacking any subtlety, Paul Whelihan, as Ernst Gruber, must carry the responsibility of creating a character of more substance than bluster. Thankfully, he succeeds in bringing out the man behind the facade in this play of surprising twists and turns. The audience really needs an excellent performance from him and he provides one.
Congratulations to scenic designer Kenneth Foy for the wonderful Berlin cigar shop that he has brought to the 47th Street Theater. Itís a brilliant set. Also, setting the tone for the period, are Gail Cooper-Hechtís costumes which were perfect for time and place.
It is very apparent that tremendous effort and loving dedication have been put into producing this thought provoking play. At the performance Stan and I attended the audience was very enthusiastic, giving the actors a big round of applause with one or two bravos thrown in. I just wonder how many left feeling the emotional weight that any play on this topic must carry? For me, it was more of an intellectual exercise, which is O.K. But, perhaps, not quite enough.
The Flame Keeper