Pawns in a plot of horror

Leslie Epstein's King of the Je ws on stage
By LIZA WEISSTUCH  |  February 27, 2007
Will Lyman and Ken Baltin

When Leslie Epstein’s novel King of the Jews was published in 1979, it was hailed as ambitious by all and deemed controversial by many. In his telling of the creation and the activity of the Judenrat, the Jewish council of elders, in the Lódz Ghetto, the longest-surviving ghetto in Poland during World War II, Epstein, who based his work on historical texts and journals, wove in vaudeville elements that gave a humorous touch to the proceedings; the result was branded a black comedy. Now he has turned his novel into an equally ambitious play, and Boston Playwrights’ Theatre is staging a luminous and wrenching production (at Boston University Theatre’s Studio 210 through March 10), with 10 Equity performers out of the cast of 12. The focus is kept on the colossal ethical quandaries, mainly how the governing body of a persecuted Jewish community handles its semblance of power when the Jews’ fate is inevitable.

But with the passing decades and the countless works of Holocaust literature, some of which have taken a none-too-solemn approach (Roberto Benigni’s La vita è bella|Life Is Beautiful, for one), the controversial blade of King of the Jews has dulled a bit. In streamlining his novel Epstein has filtered out most of the vivid scenes of daily ghetto life, leaving a blunter, more anxious portrayal of utter hopelessness. It’s precisely because the players are privy to lighter moments and comic behavior — particularly that of the bickering elder rabbis — that the play is a raw and vivid examination of humans who are fully aware of their role as pawns in a plot of horror. It’s set entirely in the Astoria Café, a signifier of the comforts the Jews once freely enjoyed; Jon Savage’s design is stylish, and Jon Lipsky’s taut direction conveys isolation and claustrophobia.

You already know how the play will end: the Lódz Ghetto was liquidated in 1944. But as the haphazard assembly chooses a leader, confers on and carries out stalling strategies when the SS commanders demand names for deportation, and cling to their dignity as matters get grimmer, you find yourself hoping — even believing — that their lot will be different from what you know. Will Lyman’s I.C. Trumpelman, a questionable doctor and the council’s leader, is so stunned by the notion that his whim shapes others’ fates that he becomes addicted to control and connives to extend his authority. But even as he swells to Shakespearean proportions as a power-thirsty bully and proclaims himself “King of the Jews,” he leaves you to wonder whether it’s a Machiavellian instinct or a ploy to sustain others’ hope — and his own. Perhaps he knows that belief and imagination are the keys to survival. The two women on the council — the suave wife (Rebekah Maggor) of the Astoria’s owner (Ken Baltin) and the rigid matron (Sarah Newhouse) — bring the power of their sex to the dramatic arch, both showing a fierce survival instinct while grappling with the instinct to nurture.

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