The title character of “King of the Jews” — a Holocaust-set play at HERE that is inventively staged and well-acted, but both intentionally and unintentionally disturbing – is inspired by the real-life Chaim Rumkowski, a Jew and a former insurance agent who from 1939 to 1944 ruled the Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Lodz, Poland. The Nazis had appointed him to head the Jewish Council of Elders, or Judenrat, which organized basic services but also did the Nazis’ bidding. Rumkowski created a ghetto currency and postage stamps with his image on them, which is why the residents of the ghetto caustically nicknamed him King Chaim.
Leslie Epstein first wrote “King of the Jews” as a novel in 1978, and then adapted his novel into a play in 2007, which has been reworked and reproduced intermittently over the years. The new production, directed by Alexandra Aron and designed by a crackerjack team (especially set designer Lauren Helpern), has transformed the theater into the Astoria Café, a Jewish-owned nightclub in 1939, where Rumkowski’s stand-in, I.C. Gotterman (Richard Topol), is just one of a dozen characters.
The characters are playing in (or listening to) a live band performing vintage American jazz, when a man named F.X. Wohltat (Daniel Oreskes) enters the establishment. “Ah, my friends! Friends of the Mosaic fraternity. It’s a shame to intrude on your evening,” says Wohltat, his elaborate politeness a transparent mask for his deadly mission: He is in search for a boy who (we later learn) has escaped a Nazi massacre. We have just seen the boy (Wesley Tiso) take refuge in the café, and the patrons hide him behind the cello.
Wohltat is evidently aware of what they’ve done, but rather than just grab the boy, he levies a punishment for their resistance. He announces that they are all now the official members of the newly-created Judenrat.
Wohltat is the only character we ever meet who is connected to the Nazi regime, a local but “the blood of the Reich flows in my veins.” Over the course of the play, he enters the café again and again, making increasing demands of the group, usually with a genial manner and a benign spin: first that they make a census of every Jew in the town, then that they move them all to a small area of the ghetto. Finally, he demands that they hand over 100 names to be deported – although he doesn’t put it that way; he says they will be sent to a farm, to milk the cows and plow the fields.
The group sees through this obvious fiction. They ask each other: What should we do? “We can’t make a list and we can’t not make a list,” one of them says. They bribe Wohltat, giving him their watches and remaining jewelry to get him down to 50 names. But that’s still 50 people they would be sending to their deaths.
When its characters explore their moral dilemma, “King of the Jews” is at its most nuanced and most engaging. But if this is a main strength of the play, it’s also part of my problem with it – a problem articulated in a long-ago review of the original novel by Ruth R. Wisse in Commentary magazine. Making the dilemma largely “an internal Jewish matter,” she wrote, “is like the story of Red Riding Hood, but without the wolf. The wolf’s lurking presence is admitted as part of the atmosphere, but the real subject is the credulity of Red Riding Hood, and the nature of her guilt in directing the wolf to granny’s door.”
The play, to be clear, is very different from the novel, which, as even Wisse pointed out, “is studded with relevant debates: on Judenrat membership as a privilege or right; on the strategy of appeasement versus rebellion; on the right to sacrifice a minority to save the majority; on the relative merits of labor and sabotage; on the relative morality of murder and suicide.”
Such debates are largely absent from the current production, or at best overshadowed by some superficial character portraits. These include two rabbis consumed by their own petty rivalry, a fatuous attempt at comic relief. Worse is the depiction of Gotterman, a doctor of dubious reputation from Lithuania, who is so villainous – duplicitous, cruel, self-aggrandizing, even a lustful womanizer – that his arguments are made easy to dismiss. In retrospect, these arguments were mistaken: that giving the Nazis 100 names would save 1,000; that agreeing to work industriously, without resistance, would convince the Nazis of the Jews’ usefulness and keep them from being killed. But preventing us from considering his point of view makes for a weaker drama.
If the drama is weak, the theatricality of the production almost makes up for it, with the fine acting from the ensemble cast making their characters more credible, and effectively relaying the fear and tension (aided by Zach Blane’s stark lighting design and some terrifying sound design by Jane Shaw .) The band members do impressive double duty – Rachel Botchan as a cabaret singer who becomes the Minister of Culture and Entertainment, one of the pompous titles handed out to the involuntary members of the Judenrat; JP Sarro as Gutfreind, a cook and clarinetist, and then Minister of Finance; Jonathan Spivey as Schpitalnik, a Hungarian furrier trapped in Poland who plays piano as a hobby, and becomes a convincingly officious Minister of Security, Erica Spyres as Dorka Kleinweiss, a cellist who comes to serve as the conscience of the group.
Standouts also include David Deblinger as Schotter, a stand-up comedian (who becomes Minister of Provisions and Supplies) who delivers jokes about “Horowitz” (his sly name for Hitler) that Epstein has said come directly from jokes told in the Jewish ghettos at the time.
Such moments of humor work, because they’re self-aware and quintessentially Jewish. When Act II begins, the Jews, now the elegantly-clad members of the Judenrat, are rejoicing from the news that the Soviet Army has defeated the Nazi forces in Kyiv.
“We’re to be liberated,” exults Martini (Allen Lewis Rickman), one of the rabbis (and Minister of Housing.) “The Great Red Wave is rolling from the east! It’s like the Red Sea!”
“Wonderful” Gotterman says sarcastically. “So the Jews can go back to life among the Poles! A paradise.”
“This will be a different land,” Gutfriend protests. “Run by the liberators! The Soviet society is an atheist nation. Not like the Poles. They won’t blame us for killing Christ.”
“No,” Schotter replies. “only for giving birth to him. For that, they’ll beat us just as hard.”
King of the Jews
HERE Arts through November 18
Running time: Two and a half hours, including a 20 minute intermission
Tickets: $99 (each performance offers ten tickets priced at $10, first come first served.)
Directed by Alexandra Aron
Set design by Lauren Helpern, lighting design by Zach Blane, sound design by Jane Shaw, costume design by Oana Botez, props design by Sarah Pencheff-Martion, intimacy director Daniella Caggiano, fight director Brent Shultz, wigs, hair and makeup by Krystal Balleza
Cast: Rachel Botchan as Phelia Rievesaltes/Lubliver (vocalist), David Deblinger as Schotter, Jacob Harran, John Little as Philosoff, JJ Maley, Rita Neidich, Daniel Oreskes as Wohltat, Howard Pinhasik, Allen Lewis Rickman as Martini, Rita Neidich, JP Sarro as Gutfreind (clarinet ,euphonium), Dave Shalansky as Rievesaltes, Jonathan Spivey as Schpitalnik (piano) , Erica Spyres as Dorka Kleinweiss (cello, violin), Wesley Tiso as Nigel Lipiczany,
Rich Topol as Gotterman, Robert Zukerman as Verble, Raphael D’Lugoff pre-show piano