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Mark Jacoby, Sean Hudock, Sophia Blum, Seamus Mulcahy, Carey van Driest



                             by Julia Polinsky


Vilna! An Eastern European capital of Jewish culture, “owned” in turn by Lithuania, Germany, Poland... In the 1930s, Vilna was home to 80,000 Jewish residents, and their schools, university, theatres, concert halls, galleries, all gone in just a few years, when the Nazis took over.


Author Ira Fuchs has tried to tell the huge, terrible story of the Vilna mass execution, the burial pit outside the city, and the escape tunnel dug by hand. Somehow, this story from which the stench of evil cannot be removed, a story that’s hard to be neutral about, becomes complex to the point of paralysis.


Sean Hudock, Seamus Mulcahy


Vilna focuses on Motke Zeidel (Sean Hudrock) and Yudi Farber (Seamus Mulcahy), two boys who were like brothers, as well as Motke’s father (Mark Jacoby) and mother (Carey van Driest), and other people who were significant in the Jewish community, from doctor, to poet/resistance leader, to chanteuse, to hospital director.


Motke and Yudi barely survived life in the ghetto and the mass murder of the Jews of Vilna. As adults, they were part of the Judenrat, which administered the ghetto, tasked with making lists of who dies immediately vs. who dies eventually. They later become part of the slave labor tasked with “sanitizing” the site of the massacre, a huge pit filled with bodies that have been limed, but not burned. Motke and Yudi must move the bodies of their colleagues, their friends, and, yes, family members, and when they can take no more, they dig a tunnel by hand, and escape. Should be easy to make that into compelling theater, no? The story practically tells itself.


Except here. Sitting in the audience for Vilna feels like attending a history lecture. After the framing-device opening, in which the ghost of Motke Zeidel addresses the audience directly, Vilna descends into scene after scene of exposition.


Vilna is a series of incidents, not a play; a number of quick-cuts that hang together thematically, not a play; a television-influenced, fast paced docu-drama, not a play; a polemic, an argument, a warning, a political statement, but not a play. It never arrives at any dramatic urgency, but instead lists incident after incident. Those incidents themselves are pregnant with horror and rage, but that’s not enough to make a drama.


The chronology of these incidents is projected against Brittany Vasta’s scenic design, which provides a useful background, as well as a too many doorways for tedious number of too-short scenes. I suppose the set does what it can to mitigate confusion, but when some scenes are so short, and the actors, most of whom play multiple roles, are moving props and furniture they just moved moments ago, there’s not much to do except wait it out.


Sophia Blum, Seamus Mulcahy, Sean Hudock                      Photos by Carol Rosegg


Only four actors have one role each; the other characters are divided among the rest of the cast, so the sultry Jewish chanteuse of one scene is the righteous Jewish doctor in the next (Sophia Blum); the Polish Customs officer is also a Russian commissar and the head of the Jewish police (Patrick Toon). Excellent performances and first-rate costuming can make an actor’s multiple roles work. In Vilna that seldom happens; only Nathan Kaufman, who plays a rabbi and later the ghetto hospital director, really manages two credible performances.


The hell of it is, you want to like it. You want to feel for these people in their terrible lives, their terrible dilemmas. How can you not? Yet Fuchs and director Joseph Discher make a mess of telling a simple story: good triumphs, in spite of evil. Introducing fifty or so scenes displaying evil tells us nothing new, and slows the play down. Had the show been tightened to a core story, instead of flailing off into scene after scene of how bad the Nazis were, perhaps Vilna might have had a strong impact. As it is, the story of Vilna gets lost in the telling.



Theatre at St. Clements

423 W. 46rd St (9th-10th)

Mon, Wed, Thurs, Fri, Sat, 7pm; Wed, Sat, 2pm

Tickets $39.50-69.50

Through April 14