A deeply researched historical drama about a controversial alarmist who ruffled feathers and broke down doors to alert less-than-interested power-brokers about the terrible plight of Jews during WWII.
No, I’m not describing EITHER OR, but a kind of companion play that we’ve been hovering around all year – the recently opened drama about Jewish Militia founder and public agitator Peter Bergson, also known as Hillel Kook, subject of THE ACCOMPLICES by former New York Times reporter Bernard Weinraub. I’ve been thinking about producing that play because it’s something that would resonate deeply in Washington. I passed on it for this coming season, but I did go up to see it two weeks ago in previews with my daughter. Isabel and I were both strongly effected by the play, a not-always elegantly written study of a scrappy, impolite activist who is wily in his maneuverings though the corridors of power in New York and DC, affronting both the organized Jewish community and the patrician members of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration.
The play confronts American anti-Semitism during the Holocaust and the Jewish establishment’s kowtowing and careful treading, hesitant to raise a voice. This, as Jews are systematically denied entry visas to the US and are left to perish in Europe. There is a strong and palpable outrage in the play as it disects the shame within the American Jewish community, and in its heralding of the boldness of unafraid Jews like Bergson and the outspoken author Ben Hecht who would, with Bergson’s participation, go on to write the public-consciousness raising pageants WE SHALL NEVER DIE and A FLAG IS BORN. This, in short, is Holocaust history worth writing about and worth staging so that audiences can really see aspects of themselves in their wrestlings with identity, activism and anti-government protesting.
But then, of course, there are the reviews; wildly disparate reactions to the same dramatization. And as a result of a guest reviewer in The New York Times’ vicious little side-swipe earlier this week, THE ACCOMPLICES will take a terminal hit and lose much of its impact—not to mention its luster—despite a sterling production by The New Group, and despite other strong notices as well. I post here two reviews – one strong and one stinging – from the same show to suggest this familiar exercise: Read both and then ask yourself, “do I trust myself to be the judge, or will I take the word of the paper of record to side-step a potentially powerful, certainly very unique drama?”
Reviewed by David Finkle
“As Bernard Weinraub’s heavy-tonnage docudrama The Accomplices unfolds, the effect is like that of an entire population — you among them — feeling a slow, steadily mounting burn. While the sensation is uncomfortable enough to have you shifting in your seat, it is absolutely necessary. Presented by The New Group, The Accomplices is the disturbing tale of how much about Adolph Hitler’s meticulously planned genocide was known by the United States government, the Jewish community, and even the American citizenry by 1942 — and how much was officially done to postpone effective intervention. It’s also the tale of a small contingent of Jewish activists, led by crusading immigrant Peter Bergson, who changed his name from Hillel Kook on entering this country.”
And here’s The New York Times guest critic, David NG
““The Accomplices,” which opened last night at the Acorn Theater, is a soporific lecture of a play. If humorlessness were the measure of good art, it could rank among the best productions of the year.”
So to complete the meditation here: What’s a professional theater’s blog-site to do on the subject of reviewers and their capriciousness?
We’re the first, in general, to ballyhoo a rave review and send out news to the world when a critic loves us. But when they don’t, we point to the fact that the reviewer might be a former food critic (as was the case with one Atlanta based journalist who graded me harshly on my recent Southern foray). It’s very poor form to complain in public—in print, specifically—about the destructiveness of a critic, lest one come off as seeming obnoxious, embittered, and almost always, on the losing side of an argument. It’s always true, what Frank Rich, the former “Butcher of Broadway” used to say, “Critics don’t close shows. Producers do.” Producers who lose their faith in the audience they’re courting and in the show they’re presenting.
How do you re-instill confidence in a show that’s taken a mortal public blow?
We’ve had plenty of opportunity to ruminate on that over the course of producing some 68 productions in 9 seasons at Theater J. Here’s the one thing I’ve learned: Listen to your audience–ALL your audience–and decipher the disparate reactions carefully. You will learn who you touched, and how, and why. And if that impact seems profound and meaningful, you will know that you have communicated your intention to a certain segment. And from that success, you will figure out how to expand your efforts to impact more of those who’ve yet to get it, but could, if you figure out why they’re not; what part of your light is still under a bushel. And then you will make your peace with that partial success, having impacted those you were meant to reach.
Strong producers with worthy shows can run against a bad review, but it’s the exception; we’ve been on both sides of that one as well. For every DISPUTATION starring Theodore Bikel that goes over the heads of a few critics to make a pact between audience, performer and content, there are other worthy shows–like our Helen Hayes nominated BAL MASQUE—that receives an unfortunate side-swipe in a passel of otherwise positive appreciations and then has to work hard–too hard, too long–to shake off a now-forgotten piece of carping.
There’s no good place to cry over the spilt milk of a bad review. So why bring it up here? I’m not thinking preemptively about EITHER OR (I promise). I’m thinking about poor Bernard Weinraub and the future of his play and whether any other audiences across the country will get to see the story of Peter Bergson/born Hillel Kook who, as luck would have it, was the father of my wife’s best friend, Becky Kook. Hillel Kook was a man I met several times in Israel and one of the most fascinating, controversial, Revisionist Zionists in history. His legacy is one worthy of examination. Weinraub’s play needs some fixes. But it’s a worthy endeavor as well.
We will see what the audience has to say about its future.