The Trial of Franklin Delano Roosevelt by Edward Bernstein. Directed by Macey Levin.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"Justice. Vengeance. What's the difference?"
Two different actors play Arthur Mandel, a Jewish tailor from Berlin whose life is inextricably entwined and complicated by the growth in power of the Nazi Party in the late 1930s. We meet him as an older man, already - and recently - dead. We find him as a young man about to fall in love. What the author makes manifestly clear is that these are the same man at two of the most important moments in his life. What we learn about him, eventually, in this play is that the decisions of the young man have affected the older man in strange ways.
In his later years he has read the law and found a new vocation. That he hasnít had much practice in this profession doesnít deter him, once he reaches heaven, in pursuing his dream of prosecuting the man he officially blames for the death of his young wife during World War II and the deliberate omission of Jewish immigrants coming from a war-torn and overly anti-Semitic Europe. The man is former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, FDR. Roosevelt has been something of an American God or icon. Itís been hard to touch the man with polio who sacrificed his life for his country. Bernstein does the best he can to tarnish the holy-man image with this play and that may be the single-most erratic problem with this show.
The cast is very good, so the problem isnít that. The physical direction of the show is fine, depending upon where you are seated for the black-box-room- presentation which doesnít give the stage much orientation help nor the audience enough deliberate angle matching to prevent visuals from becoming a sore point. It could be that, but it isnít.
New Stages, that lovely and incredible live theater option at the movie complex on North Street in Pittsfield, is presenting this play developed in their spring workshop of new plays. In twelve scenes we watch old Arthur play out his deepest desire, to put FDR on trial in heaven for his crimes against the Jewish people who were only interested in remaining alive. I have seen at least half a dozen plays in this flexible space and this is the first time I have ever had trouble seeing a show. This problem might well be laid at the feet of the director. He just didnít sit in enough seats with enough angles during rehearsals to know that this configuration was not necessarily the best.
The play begins with Mandelís funeral, continues in the anteroom of heaven and then moves back and forth between the young Arthurís meeting, wooing and winning Leah as his bride and his old-man anger being played on a cloud in a different world. It doesnít have the difficult charm of "Carousel" where the hero plays out his anger and disappointment with a "star-keeper" in a room in heaven. Here the old man is offered a multitude of options (too cute a scene to be wasted in a review) and he chooses to be the man he is rather than the man he was. This edge of age and knowledge provide him easy access to God, or Ged not to use his first name, and allow him to move forward with his heart-felt trial of the man he finds responsible for such personal loss.
There is an awkward side to the development of this play. Too often it is preachy and "educational" rather than being an insiderís view of reality. Far too often we learn about activities instead of finding them within the dialogue. Too blatant can become too scholastic. Too hard can be perceived as too off-beat and where we want to feel the cathartic release of built-up tension, anger and humiliation we only find ourselves making mental notes about things to discuss later. Not that the compulsion to talk about the issues of a play after it ends is a bad thing. No, it is a good thing; it proves stimulation came from the play. But here, in this play, we discuss what we learned instead of what he understood, a subtle distinction, but a necessary one. We are in a theater, after all, and not a classroom.
Jeffrey David Kent and David Girard share the role of Arthur Mandel. Both are good, but Girard is better. He comes to the stage with a natural verve and enthusiasm while Kent presents a man whose natural instincts are being controlled by an outside force, the actor. During the trial, for instance, when Mandel is getting mad (we know this because God or Ged calls him on it) we only see outstretched arms and only hear a controlled voice. Kent doesnít allow himself to present with rage. Girard can and does when he needs to do so. It is his performance, with its grand glimpses into the past of Arthur, that makes the play work as well as it does. Kent needs to let loose and inhabit his role. Other than that, he performs well, each word is clear and noteworthy. But that isnít the performance he is capable of giving. That is itís twist-off cap.
Amanda Lederer does a beautiful job with the role Leah, Mandelís wife. She is tender and capricious, plays desperation beautifully and handles the despair of Leah in the concentration camp wonderfully. The play literally glows when she is on stage. In a very different way Eileen Epperson makes the most of her role as God. Itís not right to criticize God, so let me just say that Epperson can be my personal guide to God any time. Itís a fine performance.
Fred Thaler is a fascinating choice for Roosevelt. He doesnít quite manage the accent and he never quite gets the swagger of a man in a wheelchair. But his former president turned defendant is a fascinating man. Again, with Roosevelt, the author feels the need to preach/teach rather than allowing the character to develop naturally in his own defense. Thaler ends up with a believable personage on the stage, he just doesnít make us think of FDR as he plays the role.
Andrew Joffe, who can play busy multiple roles, does so. Among his finest parts is the German solder MŁtler, a sadistic man who enjoys the marginal tortures he inflicts on Leah. He is also a brilliant Breckenridge Long, Assistant Secretary of State in charge of visas. Likewise the divine Karen Lee has great fun with the heavenly interviewer, the German girl Lilly, the desperate Catcher who spies out Jews for the S.S. and is even a passable, passing-through Eleanor Roosevelt.
Juliana Haubrich provides visual settings that work in their simplicity, and the excellent costumes seem to have been provided by Robert Allen and Jasmine Gage. The lighting works for this production and has been designed by Benjamin Elliott.
Director Macey Levin has taken on a difficult play, one that uses stiff language, high-pressure teaching techniques and a lyrical romantic sensibility in a play that calls for more of some elements and much less of others. This is a play on the long voyage to another place and it needs support and response along the way. Thatís our job. Support new playwrights.
David Girard and Andrew Joffe; photo provided
Amanda Lederer as Leah; photo provided
Jeffrey Kent and Fred Thaler; photo provided
The Trial of Franklin Delano Roosevelt plays at New Stage through September 18. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-418-0999.