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The Accomplices

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

David Margulies, Daniel Sauli
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Putting a polemic onstage does not guarantee it's going to be much of a play. There are always exceptions, of course - Larry Kramer's AIDS-focused The Normal Heart blends outrage and theatrical emotion with surprising deftness - but in general playwrights must keep their anger subordinate to their craft if they expect to have a decent chance of effecting changes in beliefs or attitudes.

This is not something Bernard Weinraub has taken to heart in writing his play The Accomplices, which The New Group is now producing at the Acorn Theatre. In chronicling the World War II activities of Peter Bergson, a Palestinian immigrant who assumed the responsibility for informing America of the grim realities of the Holocaust, Weinraub spares no contempt for the forces within the United States government that allowed the slaughter of European Jews to go unchecked for far too long.

It's a seldom-reported history lesson, to be sure, and not an unimportant one 60 (or 600) years down the line. But in assailing President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and a solid contingent from his administration, Weinraub (who was a longtime reporter at The New York Times) has neglected to construct any sort of a drama around the endless volleys of facts and numbers that comprise every other line of dialogue. In giving us no concrete sense of the human struggle behind the political one, Weinraub dilutes his message instead of enhancing it.

The closest The Accomplices comes to compelling is in the isolated moments when Bergson, who rallies acclaimed actors and other celebrities to his cause, considers that his actions might themselves be making no real impact; such introspection, alas, is fleeting. By the end of the first act, relentless recriminations have so piled up around the likes of Roosevelt (Jon DeVries) and even activist leader Rabbi Stephen Wise (David Margulies) that it may seem as if you're trapped in a documentary hastily assembled from discarded WWII newsreel footage. Implicating everyone is all well and good, but it's no surefire way to ensure your show is as absorbing as it is educational.

As directed with jejune flair by Ian Morgan, at any rate, this production is not. It moves cinematically around Beowulf Boritt's imposing set (which, appropriately enough, resembles a Federal courtroom for putting everyone on trial) with the help of Jeff Croiter's institutional lighting, but never pops from the stage in the occasional moments it might be capable of surviving beyond the footlights.

Daniel Sauli brings a youthful likeability to Bergson, but his magnetism is more of the restless kind, perhaps appropriate for his rabble-rouser of a character, but too little on which to hang a story requiring a more forceful charisma. Sauli acquits himself best in his opening scene, in which Bergson smarms his way into the U.S. to begin pursuing his goal of rescuing as many Jews as possible from the German concentration camps.

Andrew Polk, Daniel Sauli, Zoe Lister-Jones
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Unfortunately, as Bergson faces increasing opposition, from both the bureaucratic apologists and Weinraub's portraiture, Sauli can't keep up with the marathon transitions required to change Bergson from an idealistic boy into a battle-hardened man. Andrew Polk and Zoe Lister-Jones, who play two of his compatriots, are better at demonstrating how the weight of failure (even when it masquerades as success) transforms a soul from hopeful to defeated.

There's also fine work from Margulies, and Robert Hogan, Mark Zimmerman, and Mark Zeisler as three Roosevelt appointees of varying levels of sympathy toward Bergson's cause. These four actors, in particular, admirably and colorfully communicate the wide range of indifference that can all too easily creep into even the best of intentions.

DeVries, though, is another matter. Having apparently been carted in from some sort of political vaudeville at the Elks Club, his Roosevelt revels in the indefensibility and squishiness of the questionable moral center he occupies. There's little love for Roosevelt in Weinraub's writing (you can all but hear the smirking with each reference to his support of the Jews in the years before the play's 1940 beginning), but DeVries delivers almost flat-out parody, looking utterly out of place in a show demanding some semblance of realism to be tolerable.

So bizarre is DeVries's FDR that his word-munching performance seems to scream "hate me" with each masticated phrase. Given the abject seriousness and debilitating reverence with which Weinraub has written this play, it's tempting to want to believe he neither intends nor endorses such a portrayal. But the biggest problem with The Accomplices is that there's just no way to be sure.

The Accomplices
Through May 5
Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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