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A Splintered Soul

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

John Michalski and Lisa Bostnar
Photo by Richard Termine.

With his play A Splintered Soul, which has just opened at Theatre Three in its New York premiere, Alan Lester Brooks wants to show that it's possible to be shell-shocked without ever having stepped on a battlefield. That's a lesson that the lead character, Simon Kroeller, an aging rabbi who's struggling to reestablish his life in America after World War II, learns the hard way. And if you attend this chronicle of how some psychological wounds never fully heal, chances are you won't think it's too easy, either.

This is not because of a lack of good intentions, or even a worthwhile tale to tell, but because of a soggy follow-through. Like many playwrights, Brooks has trouble balancing an original take on the subject of the treatment of Jews during and after the war with the history he obviously cares about and a sense of dramatic necessity. But whenever forced to make a choice, he always sacrifices the last of those, which over the course of two hours makes for a limp evening.

The one clear, convincing part of the play is Simon himself. As written and played (by John Michalski, who displays immense sensitivity in the part), this is a man who's being torn apart by both his demons and his own attempts to exorcise them. His focused view of what he wants for his people conflicts with his own prejudices to paint a compelling portrait of personal psychosis that has a very good reason for being as debilitating to him as it is.

It stems, of course, from his time in Europe, where he committed some questionable acts against the Nazis who occupied his homeland of Poland—and who experienced no shortage of heartbreak in return. Now that it's 1947 and he's in San Francisco, he hopes to set things right, and is working to install himself as the spiritual head of the Polish population in the city, or at least as the Vito CorleoneĀ–like figure that can put right the many wrongs his people face as they orient themselves in their new world.

This is easier said than done, as is proved when a young brother and sister, Harold and Elisa Strewliskie (Sid Solomon and Ella Dershowitz), confess to Simon that they are essentially being held captive by a German man who's taking gross advantage of their less-than-legal status and, it's put none too bluntly, their bodies. Acting on inspiration from his well-connected friend, Judge Martin Levinsky (Kenny Morrier), Simon sets up a citizen tribunal for the purpose of achieving an apparently impossible justice. But he and the rest of them learn that that's not so easily had, especially at a point in Jewish history when trust is in perilously short supply.

Though the first act is turgid and heavy-handed in its general setup, things get more involving and complex (if not quite exciting) after intermission, when deeds become more important than talk. The biggest problem with A Splintered Soul is that doesn't happen more often; it typically doesn't know when to shut up. Most scenes are simple exchanges of dialogue with the actors calmly sitting in semicircles on Kevin Judge's dream-realistic living-room set, though some of the more adventurous ones feature the performers standing up instead.

But despite the drastic measures required by the main plot, and the potential of a fascinating, class-scaling romantic side story between Gerta (Anya Migdal), a domestic, and her employer, Leo (Michael Samuel Kaplan), little actual action seeps onto the stage. Because several key characters (most prominently the man Harold and Elisa identify as their captor) remain unseen, the play quickly becomes a hypnotically predictable game of he-said-she-said that only occasionally resolves into the moments of blood-pumping passion all these indignant ingredients would seem to foretell.

Daisy Walker's direction is on the sleepy side; so are most of the performances, striking the same basic notes over and over again. Lisa Bostnar achieves some sophisticated distinction playing a trio of sturdy maternal characters (including Simon's supportive wife), but it's Michalski who makes the strongest impression. He carefully layers Simon's suppressed viciousness with his pain, fear, and even optimism—it really is as if this man represents everything the Jews thought and felt at that time, yet his performance is never merely philosophical or collegiate.

The same can't be said of the rest of A Splintered Soul. Its devotion to social detail is not enough to convince you that this story needs to be told in just this way, especially at the expense of heart. Only near the end, when Simon is contending with his most brutal choices and their haunting aftermath, does the play feel more chilling and immediate than it does chilly and impersonal. Brooks claims in his program bio that "the story comes from a condensation of the author's experiences," and if that's true then Brooks has lived a life clearly worthy of stage treatment. Unfortunately, he has not yet found how to make those experiences burrow into, and change, us as they no doubt did him.

A Splintered Soul
Through November 13
Theater 3, 311 West 43rd Street, 3rd Floor
Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission
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