Either Or was written by Thomas Keneally, author of the book that was the source for Schindler’s List. Its subject is the terrible choice faced by SS Officer Kurt Gerstein (Paul Morella), a devout Christian who oversaw sanitation efforts at concentration camps. The choice he must make: Should the Reich gas Jews using difficult-to-manage carbon monoxide, which results in a slow, agonizing death, or Zyklon B, which kills with less suffering but much greater efficiency?
Curiously, the production seems more interested in that choice than it is in the man who has to make it. Keneally substitutes scholarship for characterization, forcing what feels like entire chapters’ worth of dense exposition into the characters’ mouths.
Very little of the onstage action in Either Or passes without a character launching into a lengthy, simultaneous description of that action. Director Daniel DeRaey’s choices tend toward the muted and literal; stagecraft is minimized, as is the actors’ movements. A talented cast simply stands and delivers in a series of tableaux, because the production rarely calls upon the characters to express themselves in a look or a gesture or in anything but words that flatly state exactly what they’re thinking. The ultimate effect owes more to radio drama than it does to live theater.
The constant verbal underlining also loads the production down with many repetitious scenes. Most of its running time, in fact, is taken up with a perpetually aghast Gerstein slowly coming to the realization of his role in genocide. We never get to really feel that dawning horror with him, however, because lines like “But…does the Führer know about this?” and “This happens in Germany? In Germany?” keep piling up; they’re meant to be grimly ironic, but they kick us out of the play completely.
Most incredibly, the play doesn’t seem willing to cop to any real moral ambiguity in the man himself. It may well be true that Gerstein only joined the Nazi party, and subsequently the SS, out of a desire to change the system from within. But Either Or doesn’t dramatize any appreciable conflict at the man’s core. Instead, Gerstein gets the hero edit: He opens the play evangelizing his Christian faith and spends much of the second act evangelizing the horrible truth of Nazi genocide to anyone he can.
Are we meant to equate the two? To see Gerstein’s passion (what the play calls his “excessive fervor”) to entreat and persuade as simply a constant, an ingrained part of his character? It seems too facile an association to draw, especially when doing so makes the man’s courage seem like little more than a stubborn habit. Yet that’s the reading the play’s current structure demands.
There’s a compelling, nearly unimaginable story to tell here, but for now it remains unimagined. In the end, the tools of the historical novel are not those of the theater; Either Or is scholarly, rigorous, and thorough where it should be moving, expressive, and intimate.