It’s April 1939, and in their Providence, Rhode Island, drawing room, the affluent Leonard (David Schlumpf) and Evelyn Kirsch (Erin Weaver) are having a drink before their dinner guests, Roberta (Kimberly Gilbert) and Martin Bloom (Alexander Strain), arrive. With Sheltered, playwright Alix Sobler offers what at first appears to be the sort of polite domestic comedy that provided escapism between the crises of the Great Depression and World War II. Then, as Martin enthuses about a performance of Our Town they had just seen in New Haven, praising it for its Americanness, Roberta reminds him that there were no Blumenthals in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire.
The two couples are secular Jewish Americans, and Martin, in particular, is ashamed of many aspects of his heritage: his former name, Roberta’s grandfather’s work in the Yiddish theater, that their son plays on a baseball team called The Maccabees, and the kinky hair that runs in the family. When the affable and apparently aloof Len attempts to broach the topic of the war about to break out in Europe, or the tyranny that German and Austrian Jews are facing after Kristallnacht and the Anschluss, Martin espouses isolationism, and insinuates that the traditional garb of religious Jews is to blame for Nazi anti-Semitism. This charge continues to be made even today as Orthodox Jews are attacked in Brooklyn, Monsey, and Jersey City. But like anti-Semitism today, Nazi anti-Semitism was rarely about religious observance, and based more on racist pseudoscience and conspiracy theories, a fact none of Sobler’s characters seem to grasp.
In contrast to the happily married Kirsches (Weaver and Schlumpf have wonderful stage chemistry together), it is heavily suggested that Martin is physically abusive behind closed doors, and it is little surprise that the Blooms’ teenage daughter is acting out. Even in those moments when Roberta is relegated to glaring at her husband, all Gilbert’s gestures make for a masterful comic performance.
Only when the men step out to look at Len’s new Cadillac is the reason for the dinner invitation revealed: The Kirsches are soon to leave on a mission to rescue 40 Austrian Jewish children, and want their friends to take one.
One month later, the Kirsches are in Vienna negotiating with Hani Mueller (McLean Fletcher), a mother reluctant to give up her five-year-old son Reyner. The boy is anachronistically described as a fan of the Belgian comics hero Tintin, despite Tintin not being available in German until 1946.
For all Sobler’s good intentions, the script has a certain sloppiness. Is Leonard a general practitioner or an attorney? There’s evidence that in an earlier draft the first act was set in Philadelphia (Len and Martin are Phillies fans) and later revised to Providence, so that Len and Evelyn could meet at Brown University, and the drive from New Haven would be manageable. Yet when Evelyn describes Providence to Hani, all she can say is “it’s a lovely city. One of the oldest in America.” Likewise, there’s little to identify Vienna beyond some spoken German and a mention of the Gestapo’s seizure of the Palais Nathaniel Rothschild.
This lacking sense of place gives the usually inventive scenic designer Paige Hathaway little to work with. Close observers might notice how the Providence parlor and Vienna hotel have different sconces, floor lamps, and couches, or that decorative American prints are substituted with kitschy Austrian paintings, but most will see that the wallpaper and wainscoting remain identical.
The biggest fault is that the two acts seem to belong to different plays; each act is incapable of unlocking its dramatic potential without its missing half. The hard decisions that lead the Kirsches to decide which of the 40 children to rescue are largely elided, as is the thinking that spurred them to rescue 40 children they do not know. The sort of home the troubled Blooms might provide for Reyner is also never explored.
There are stronger plays dramatizing attempts to rescue Vienna’s Jews: Mona Golabek’s one-woman show, The Pianist of Willesden Lane, which Theater J presented in 2018, evokes time and place far more vividly, and Savyon Liebrecht’s A Case Named Freud, which has yet to receive a full production in America despite being one of the Israeli short story writer’s stronger works for the stage, both come to mind. This raises the question, why this play? Why now? Especially when it could use another rewrite?
To Feb. 2 at 1529 16th St. NW. $30-$69. (202) 777-3210. theaterj.org.