By Thomas Keneally
Produced by Theater J
Reviewed by Janice Cane
Either Or is an incredibly compelling story, all the more so because it is true. Personal conflict set against the backdrop of worldwide conflict. Risk. Love. Anguish. Hope. Defeat. All elements of an unforgettable play are there.
And yet, Either Or does not cross that indefinable divide between compelling story and unforgettable play. Each of the actors-some playing multiple roles-delivers a fine, even performance, but none is truly memorable, not even the lead, Paul Morella.
Morella takes the audience through more than two hours of character development about Kurt Gerstein, and what a complicated character he was. A devout Christian, Gerstein became a member of the Nazi party to imbue it with his Christian values.
“If there is a danger the party will overlook the murder of innocent people,” Gerstein muses after his mentally ill sister-in-law becomes a victim of the regime’s T4 euthanasia program, “one should join the party.” And so Gerstein justified his actions, as he would continue to do throughout the war.
An expert on fumigation, Gerstein believed his role in the SS-head of Technical Disinfection Services-was to sanitize the concentration camps of lice and vermin. It is jarring to hear a swastika-clad man discuss “disinfection problems” and know he is not speaking euphemistically about Jews.
When he discovers the truth, Gerstein is appalled, but rather than denouncing the party, he continues to perform his duties, while attempting subtle subterfuge and seeking help from Swiss and Swedish diplomats, and even the Vatican.
As Gerstein struggles to make the truth heard, he also struggles to reconcile his religious faith with the choices he must make. Should he recommend replacing carbon monoxide with the more efficient Zyklon B in the gas chambers? The faster-working gas will kill more Jews, but it will kill them in a more humane manner.
“No choice is right,” Gerstein realizes, and no religion can guide him-“Hitler killed God.” So if Gerstein’s initial reason for joining the Nazi party was to impart his Christian beliefs, how can he remain an officer after his God abandons him? Why not renounce the party and take bolder steps to try and save Europe’s remaining Jews? The play raises these deep, disturbing questions, but it does not-cannot-answer them.
I wanted Either Or to be unforgettable because it is such a compelling story. Maybe I set my expectations too high for the playwright, author Thomas Keneally, who wrote the Booker Prize-winning novel Schindler’s Ark, upon which Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List was based. It took me three tries to get through Schindler’s List, and I only succeeded after visiting concentration camps in person. Either Or is just too hollow to have the same effect, perhaps because the protagonist is not nearly as sympathetic a character as Oskar Schindler. I got the impression that Gerstein tried to inform the outside world of Nazi atrocities more to ease his own troubled conscience than to save lives. This may not be a fair assessment of the man, but that’s the impression Either Or gave me.
This is Keneally’s first play. Theater J worked closely with him during the writing process, but more paring down would have been beneficial. Two hours and 15 minutes is a lot of character development-too much to be considered essential. The second act features more action than the first, making it the stronger half. Gerstein’s eyewitness accounts of what went on at the camps, and his tortured visage as he witnesses the Nazi atrocities, are far more powerful than any of the many expository scenes.
The aesthetic elements of Either Or are impeccable. Jim Kronzer’s set is spare, yet offers multiple levels and entry points, and director Daniel De Raey’s blocking utilizes the space well. I was grateful De Raey did not employ accents. With such a large cast, accents would have varied widely and distracted the audience.
Ryan Rumery’s sound design is especially effective. Offstage, we hear crowds rioting, babies crying and Jewish victims arriving at the camp. Rumery chooses crickets, not screams, to fill the air after an SS guard pours Zyklon B into a crowded gas chamber. Either Keneally and De Raey thought a more realistic approach would have been too graphic for the audience, or they meant to highlight Gerstein’s silence. Regardless, the deathly quiet in the theater-save the gentle whirring of the crickets-is the play’s most hauntingly poignant moment.
(Running time: approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission) Either Or runs through June 3 at the Goldman Theater, in the Washington, D.C., Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. N.W. Tickets are $15-$45 and may be purchased by phone at 202-777-3214 or online at http://www.boxofficetickets.com/.