What a brave and shining thing Theater J is doing right now, putting on two richly ambiguous plays about the Holocaust and Judaism in the middle of so much demonizing about the Middle East. In depicting a leading Austrian Jew who suddenly became a confederate of his country’s smarmiest anti-Semite, Born Guilty and Peter and the Wolf, both by Theater J Artistic Director Ari Roth, go out of their way to avoid easy answers. Born Guilty, the older script, is mostly marvelous; Peter and the Wolf, its new sequel, still needs some work. But running in repertory and sharing one cast, they fuse into an electric essay on the limits of history and how mixed motives are the only kind around.
Roth’s protagonist, the Viennese author Peter Sichrovsky, makes for an almost absurdly interesting subject. Eighty percent of Sichrovsky’s family perished in the Holocaust, and his father survived because a Gestapo agent let him escape. Previously a technical writer, Sichrovsky in 1985 published Strangers in Their Own Land, a best-selling nonfiction account of the alienation of young German and Austrian Jews. He followed that with Born Guilty, a book based on wrenching interviews with the children of Nazis, each uniquely warped by his or her experiences.
In 1991, Sichrovsky described Jorg Haider, the Hitler-admiring leader of Austria’s ultra-right-wing Freedom Party, as “scum.” Five years later, Sichrovsky shocked everyone by becoming one of the Freedom Party’s leading figures. The author saw his move as not a betrayal but as a clean break with hypocrisy. He told an online magazine at the time that he “grew up in a country where everyone’s father had been an ‘anti-fascist.’ I was fed up with those lies….I’d rather work with people who say, ‘Yes, my father did terrible things but he’s still my father,’ than with those who tell me their parents saved Jews or how many Jewish friends they had before the war.”
Roth’s Born Guilty stars a character named Peter Sichrovsky (Rick Foucheux) who emcees his own journey from bourgeois quietude to Nazi-story hunting. “What did I know of these people and their parents,” Peter says, “and what they had done to my parents, and my grandparents? The subject had never come up. So I brought it up.”
Peter talks to children of concentration-camp guards, of war profiteers, even of a high-ranking German officer who escaped to South America. His interviewees are defined by their parents’ crimes, psychically shaped by the fact that Daddy contributed to mass murder but never discussed it at dinner. One woman’s initials are “S.S.”—”one of my father’s little jokes,” she says. Another wants to sleep with as many Jews as possible as a personal reparations project. Most are stuck in either denial or rebellion (reading about the Third Reich over and over, turning the family home into an anti-Nazi shrine). “There are certain qualities in myself that he may or may not be responsible for,” admits one Herbert Schmidt (Michael Russotto) about his father, who participated in the one-day slaughter of a Polish town’s 1,700 Jews.
As smashingly directed by John Vreeke, Born Guilty is hungry, rigorous, startling theater, an animal energy held within crisp precision (accentuated by the Goldberg Variations welling up between scenes). The whip-smart cast members (Foucheux, Russotto, Jennifer Mendenhall, Julie-Ann Elliott, Irving Jacobs, Jim Jorgensen, Christopher Lane, and Michelle Shupe) become 30 characters during the evening—parents, police, angry crowds, Sunday strollers, even gravestones. Each has brief, spectacular turns that explode like fireworks and burn in the memory well after the spotlight has swung elsewhere. The script combines with the cast’s ever-shifting ensemble work and Dan Conway’s beautiful, Gregg Toland-like lighting to make a spellbinding piece of sustained and intelligent artistry. When the first act ends, you may realize that you’ve been holding your breath for over an hour.
Foucheux slips into the character of Peter as if he were born to it. Setting out as an Armani-clad avenger swelling with righteousness, Peter loses his way bit by bit, his world narrowing to a pinhole of obsessiveness. Soon he goes over the line, seeking others’ pain instead of truth. (At one point he half-jokingly calls himself “Shylock.”) There’s a fascinating moment when Peter, who has been phoning Herbert Schmidt to the point of harassment, reaches Schmidt’s father instead—and all Peter wants to do is talk to the son. As his project consumes him, Peter emerges more human than hero, and Foucheux ranges through his many moods with a rare command.
The second act of Born Guilty is less successful, concentrating on a family in which son Dieter (played by Lane) has discovered that his family’s house was taken from Jews during the war and purchased by his grandfather for a pittance. (Jacobs is terrifyingly nasty as the confronted patriarch.) But in one of the play’s final images, Peter reluctantly pushes this sick old man’s wheelchair in a circle so he can sleep. “When the last Nazi dies,” Peter says, “will anyone remember, or are we finally free to forget?” Thus are victim and victimizer bound. It’s an exquisite image: a man caring for his enemy because he doesn’t trust memory alone to sustain his grievance.
Much more postmodern—and ultimately more conventional—than Born Guilty, Peter and the Wolf dramatizes Roth’s coming to grips with Sichrovsky’s apparent apostasy. How could a man who wrote so scathingly about Nazi opportunism allow himself to be used by Haider, who hobnobs with Saddam Hussein and drops coded anti-Semitic references into his speeches as applause lines? As with Born Guilty, the journey here is its own answer—although Peter’s long-windedness makes you want an express ticket.
Peter travels with the Adapter (a fictionalized Roth played by Lane) into both Austria and Sichrovsky’s psyche—a double heart of darkness. Peter (Foucheux again) is, of course, the real adapter, now a political star as well as a chilly, litigious man who sues the Adapter over a movie deal and then cuts off contact. But not really. The Adapter is fixated on Peter: He wants to expose his hypocrisy, but he idealizes him, too. So while Peter can barely take the Adapter’s phone calls, Foucheux plays another, more insinuating character, one who is a recurrent devil on the Adapter’s shoulder—warning him, for example, not to be duped by German gentiles who have cleaned up his father’s cemetery. “Ask them what their parents did,” says Peter. But before the Adapter can fully interrogate Peter, Peter’s own father dies. Peter ends in a succession of quick and unsatisfying eulogies that, for once in the two evenings, feel more like a cover-up than an unveiling.
After Vreeke’s ingenious handling of Born Guilty, Peg Denithorne’s leisurely, almost static direction of Peter disappoints. Roth also wants to do too much with this play—it’s a fable, a travelogue, an exorcism, a bildungsdrama, even a mea culpa for Born Guilty’s factual errors and misquotations. He resorts to speechifying, which kills the dramatic snap. And the play references Born Guilty too intimately to stand on its own, especially in an unnecessary opening talk-show scene in which Shupe discusses her previous performance.
Still, Peter and the Wolf is a necessary coda to this fascinating life story, and it also raises the uncomfortable question of whether Sichrovsky’s Born Guilty was just another career move. (A pre-premiere interview with the actual Sichrovsky, who ran figure-eights around the hapless questions of Mark Plotkin, did nothing to settle the matter.) Both plays color each other, and they should be seen together. They test how long one can inquire into the most difficult and personal issues without judging, and one can only admire Theater J’s skill and nerve in presenting them. CP