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Wouldn’t you think that bringing stage life to real people would be a playwriting snap? Just train a spotlight on them, point them toward an audience, and start them talking in their own words. If they were larger than life in real life (and why dramatize their stories if they weren’t?), the job should be more than half done before designers and directors ever get involved. Indeed, even if the subjects were only decently interesting, the fact of framing them with a proscenium arch and articulating thoughts that have had the benefit of editing should do the trick, shouldn’t it?
Well, alas, no (as audiences who trooped off to see Jean Stapleton’s enervating Eleanor Roosevelt last fall can attest). More often than not, drama comes not from the mere heightening of life but from the full-fledged inventing of it. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but it’s rarely as theatrically satisfying.
Which is probably why Ernie Joselovitz opted to fictionalize the true story he’s telling in Shakespeare, Moses, and Joe Papp—and why the Round House company has succeeded in making it vibrant to a greater extent than anyone had any right to expect. Not content with merely bringing to life the leading combatants in a celebrated 1959 clash over whether Manhattanites would be allowed to watch free Shakespeare in Central Park, Joselovitz decided to give their story the dramatic arc, theatrical punch, and wit of an Elizabethan history play.
He provides a narrator (Andrew Ross Wynn) to set the stage for the engagement and allows him (shades of the Bard’s Chorus in Henry V) to pop back into the action every so often, to clarify and remind us of the stakes when the going gets complicated. Wynn also doubles and triples in minor roles, as Elizabethan actors often did, but he begins by simply introducing the evening’s royals: New York’s business-suited, all-powerful parks commissioner, Robert Moses (Gerry Bamman), who is damned if he’s allowing so much as a single mime on the Great Lawn; and scrappy, sneakered New York Shakespeare Festival head Joe Papp (John Lescault), whose feistiness is exceeded only by his chutzpah as leader of the barely capitalized company. Each assumes he has God on his side, and each has a loyal but contrarian lieutenant—Moses’ flack-in-training Jesse Seligman (Eric Sutton), Papp’s NYSF co-founder Jacob Rose (Aaron Shields)—to question that assumption.
Battle is joined when Moses tries to have Papp’s troupe banished from Central Park because its actors passed a hat for donations after an impromptu performance, and the struggle between monstrous egos escalates to the point that a frustrated (and hilarious) Mayor Robert Wagner (Mitchell Hebert) is heard forlornly reminding anyone who’ll listen that “the people are under the impression that I was elected to run this city.”
The strategic thrusts and artful parries (of which there are a few too many in Joselovitz’s clear but attenuated script) flesh out the evening, providing plenty of opportunities for the leads to wax eloquent. Papp quotes Julius Caesar (the first play he mounted in the park) as he fires off the press releases that are his chief weaponry; Moses gazes admiringly at a model of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge (which he is in the middle of ramming through a Byzantine approval process) and pronounces it “mathematics and money made beautiful.”
Joselovitz allows each principal to soliloquize at length, and he gives his mismatched antagonists intriguingly intertwined motives. Lou Jacob’s staging encourages the performers to ratchet up emotions (and voices) to the point that by play’s end, you may think you can make out tooth marks on James Kronzer’s milieu-bridging scenery. But there are quieter moments, too—particularly those involving Sutton, whose nuanced portrayal of a conflicted aide to a complicated monster serves as a nice reminder of the effectiveness of understatement, in an evening that’s all about theatrical posturing.
Credit Karen Malpede and George Bartenieff with tackling something infinitely more difficult in attempting to stage a portion of the diaries of Holocaust survivor Victor Klemperer, in I Will Bear Witness: Part II, 1942-1945. In his diary entries, Klemperer documented what was happening to the Jews of Dresden throughout the ’30s and ’40s. The first section (which Bartenieff performs as Part I, 1933-1938 on April 19 at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum) begins with Hitler’s coming to power and ends just before Kristallnacht.
Part II, which I caught this past weekend at Theater J, is about Klemperer’s increasingly constricted life as part of a shrinking, embattled Jewish population in Dresden as Germany’s war effort faltered, the Nazis rushed to complete their Final Solution, and the protections he had known because his wife was not Jewish became more and more precarious.
The Klemperers’ horrifying predicament is eloquently chronicled in the evening’s simple prose, as when he laments the elimination of everyday niceties (“a typewriter, the use of a library…food”), then observes quietly that “the last war was such a decent business.” But it quickly becomes evident that the stage isn’t really the ideal medium for showcasing diary entries, and most of the evening’s effect derives more from the inherent drama of the events being recounted than from the recounting. Try to imagine The Diary of Anne Frank as a solo show and you’ll get a sense of what’s missing theatrically. Bartenieff is a distinguished actor, but there’s only so much he can do with inflection and gesture. CP