King of the Jews
King of the Jews, now receiving its world premiere at the Olney Theatre Center in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, wants to take an incisive look at the compromises and devil's bargains that faced Jews living under Nazi occupation. Playwright Leslie Epstein based the script on his own novel, but perhaps a story this vast in scope needs a larger canvas than the stage; the 12 characters never really come to life and their motivations remain vague throughout.
The audience in the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab enters through Jon Savage's intricately detailed set: a seedy café in a Polish city, complete with a small stage (it even has footlights) and smoky mirrors behind the bar. Sadly, neither Epstein's characterizations nor Cheryl Faraone's direction match the specificity of the scenery.
The play begins in the winter of 1939-40; despite the menacing presence of "the blond ones" in the street, the Astoria Café, run by the domineering Fried Rievesaltes (Delaney Williams), still provides drinks, entertainment and fellowship to the city's Jews. Madam Rievesaltes (Valerie Leonard) sings; Herman Gutfreind (Harry A. Winter) plays the trumpet when he isn't spouting off about the glories of the Soviet Union; and the grim-faced comic Schotter (David Elias) avoids potential controversy by referring to the German dictator as "Horowitz." The regulars include two squabbling rabbis, Martini (Carter Jahncke) and Verble (Norman Aranovic), and the quietly besotted doctor Trumpelman (David Little).
The dramatic spark in the first act comes when a Nazi official (Nick DePinto, standing in for James Konicek) arrives to establish a Jewish governing council. The members of the Judenrat, as it is known, must become unwilling collaborators, enforcing Nazi orders while feebly trying to do what they think is best for the largest number of Jews. The problem is that none of the characters is especially well drawn.
The man who becomes the leader of the Judenrat, for example, is clearly meant to demonstrate how power corrupts and how a person can rationalize doing evil in the name of the greater good, but he never gets a chance to show any depth of personality. Another member of the council has no notable characteristics aside from her vivid red hair, and the one person who has actually seen Nazi brutality firsthand (Justin Pereira) bursts out with his story only after remaining mute through almost the entire play.
Olney Theatre Center