Brutal and rending as the facts may be, it's not enough simply to tick off for us the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto and its eventual extermination. Not in the theater, anyway. And Susan Nanus' "The Survivor," a supposedly factual piece based on an autobiographical book of the same name by Jack Eisner, might be, except for its grim setting, a standard adventure story badly told. It arrived at the Morosco last night in a blaze of triteness.
Steven Rubin's gloomily interesting multi-level warren of a set serves for the various households and byways of the ghetto and outside world. The title character, Jacek, heads a small gang of Jewish youths who slip in and out of the ghetto to buy food on the Aryan black market, concealing it by posing as returning members of a funeral procession until they are caught and must resort to other, increasingly more difficult, means.
Eventually, their sources are cut off and all but Jacek have been killed. "Only I can mark their passing," he says, standing alone in a spotlight at the finish. "That is my job for the rest of my life. I am a survivor."
A noble intent, but although the ghetto teems with characters, they are all pasteboard types: the ineffectual, religious father; the stubborn mother; the pathetic grandmother; the Jewish policeman in Nazi employ, the worried elderly Jew whose drainpipe is somehow used as a food conduit. Even the gang members are stock figures: the once rich boy; the ignorant one; the timid but determined member, and the resourceful leader who, in David Marshall Grant's uninteresting performance, has the unfortunate habit of investing "smuggler" with three syllables.
Craig Anderson, the director, has kept the action moving briskly, but he has understandably been defeated in an attempt to get much in the way of performances from a large and motley cast in sketchy parts.
Joanna Merlin and Lilia Skala make what impressions they can as the briefly seen mother and grandmother; Ann Lange brings ardor to the part of Jacek's girl, who passes as a Catholic for a while (the action covers the period from November, 1940, to April, 1943), and later, having proudly discarded her mask, is forced into prostitution by the Nazi soldiers, finally to die in Jacek's arms in Sweden. But like so much else, these events are related by the dead subjects as, at intervals, they are observed standing erect beneath spotlights.
I don't doubt that it's all true; yet, as presented, I couldn't bring myself to believe a word of it. "The Survivor" is a jumble, worse, a diminution of one of the most indelible chapters in the history of the Second World War.
About a third of the way through Susan Nanus' play The Survivor, which opened at the Morosco Theater last night, I began to feel distinctly guilty.
The play is based on a book of the same name, by Jack Eisner, which tells of the author's experiences in the Warsaw Ghetto in World War II. And horrendous experiences they were - indeed, Eisner was the only survivor from his own gang of friends, a sort of miniature teenage Jewish resistance army, smuggling food from Warsaw's Aryan section into the starving Ghetto.
Now he lives in New York, has become a successful businessman, written these memoirs and, I understand, commissioned the present play, which was given an Off-Off-Broadway showcase production last year.
The story Eisner has told Miss Nanus is no less harrowing now than it was 10 years ago, 20 years ago, or 40 years ago, when it was actually happening. The genocide of the Jews is a bloodstained blot on human civilization that no amount of passing history will ever erase.
Yet, as Eisner points out in his story, it also revealed enormous heroism, self-sacrifice and demonstrated that passion and ability which leads certain people to survive against seemingly impossible odds.
Almost overnight in 1940 the Warsaw Jews were uprooted and thrown into slum tenements in a run-down part of the city. A wall is built surrounding the Ghetto, which is policed by a collaborationist Jewish militia. Food is incredibly scarce - even a carrot becomes a delicacy. The Jews, mostly working class, some academics, a few formerly rich, upper class merchants and the like, are all poured into these tiny hovels.
Jacek (a 15-year-old Eisner in another dimension) starts to smuggle food in from the outside. Eventually, together with his kid-sister as book-keeper, he forms a smuggling gang. In Eisner's view of events it appears to be only the children who resist.
Eventually the Warsaw Ghetto is empty and the final phase of Hitler's "final solution" has begun. Jacek even survives this - he lives, in time to watch his friends and family wiped out.
The story is all there. So why did I feel guilty? Because of the shame of Western civilization, now perhaps to be felt by Gentile and Jew alike, for these were men oppressing men and humanity's crimes leave only guilty victims? No, my guilt was not there - it was simply that this play, for all its forcefulness, never really moved me.
As a display of courage and survival on the author's part it is obviously impressive - but the story itself does not develop, any more than do the characters.
The drama plays on our emotions without nourishing them. In many ways The Diary of Anne Frank was a more sentimental piece of work - but it also dealt with people not simply as gallant symbols of youth. There is tragic poignancy in the earlier play that is lacking here. There was richness there, that this new play misses. Yet one should be moved by this potentially stirring tale of Jewish resistance - but while I dimly felt guilty, I also knew something had gone wrong.
The writing is flat, infiltrated by cliches and unillustrative. The tone of the play is relentless, and it story repetitive. The structure is as ramshackle as Steven Rubin's cleverly rabbit-warrened setting, and the director Craig Anderson has been unable to suggest dramatic development where none exists.
There are some good performances - particularly from David Marshall Grant as Jacek, the tough, resourceful survivor. I also noticed with pleasure, Loren Brown, as the sister Hela, Lonny Price as gang-member Rudy, and the veteran Lilia Skala as an archetypal Grandmother.
For me The Survivor did not, in the end, survive. A pity - the story should be thrilling. It was the singer at fault, not the song.
As many others have noted, the Holocaust is a story that can't be told by just anyone. If the unfathomable horrors of Nazi genocide are to remain forever in the forefront of the world's conscience, they must be conveyed by writers, historians and artists who can make them as palpable as is humanly possible. (No one, after all, can truly recreate the Holocaust for those who didn't experience it.) Simply put, this means that hacks have no right to use this piece of history as a grazing ground. Slipshod dramatizations don't keep the nightmare fresh. They trivialize it, depersonalize it, distance it. They turn the Holocaust into popcorn entertainment that audiences can all too comfortably consume and forget.
This, I'm afraid, is precisely what has happened with a new play called ''The Survivor,'' which opened at the Morosco last night. No doubt the people behind this production have good intentions. No doubt they sincerely wish to remind us not only of the Nazis' crimes, but also of those heroic Jews who struggled for freedom within the inferno of the Warsaw Ghetto. But this show is a banality: it turns history into a bland and tedious compilation of showbiz cliches.
The author is Susan Nanus, who has adapted a memoir by Jack Eisner, a Holocaust survivor. According to the program, Miss Nanus interviewed other survivors as well, but one has to wonder if she really listened to them. Each of her characters has been assigned a single personality trait so that each might neatly represent a different kind of Warsaw Jew. Instead of a cross-section of humanity, we get a smorgasbord of stereotypes.
Jacek (David Marshall Grant), the hero of the evening, is the ringleader of a teen-age food-smuggling ring: he's impetuous. One of his cohorts is defined exclusively by his Hasidic roots, one by his wealthy airs, one by his constant comical use of an expletive. Jacek's father is ''a man of books'': This means that he carries a book in every scene, wears spectacles and repeatedly reaffirms his mistaken conviction that ''the war will be over soon.'' Grandma (Lilia Skala) is a cartoonish matriarch. Sister (Loren Brown) is a shamefully hollowed-out caricature of Anne Frank.
These people may have all existed in Warsaw - but not in this two-dimensional, one-note form. By failing to bring any of them to compelling life, Miss Nanus has transformed the Nazis' victims into bloodless statistics. Yet, even if she had put real people on stage, one would still have to quarrel with the way she sanitizes their deaths. The murders are stylized, and they are each followed by a monologue in which the deceased character stands in a spotlight to describe his or her demise. This arty, sentimentalizing device, last seen to no effect in ''Goodbye Fidel,'' has the effect of taking the sting out of the horror. In one of these posthumous speeches, a dead woman even announces that she ''hardly felt a thing.'' But the six million did feel something as they were butchered - and they weren't allowed the luxury of coming back to tell the world what those feelings were.
Miss Nanus doesn't do justice to the story that contains these people, either. ''The Survivor'' tries to recount the ghetto uprising, but the playwright plunges from her plodding exposition right to her frantic resolution, leaving history in tatters. So lame is the writing that Miss Nanus must finally rely on recorded music to convey the play's moods, trashy sound effects to signify terror and a chorus of extras to fill in factual information. For humor, there's the expected sprinkling of Yiddishisms. For a love story, there's a furtive across-the-wall romance that is told in the perfunctory manner of the ''We Kiss in a Shadow'' subplot of ''The King and I.''
The production, which unfolds on Steven Rubin's three-level set, is severely cramped by the text. Craig Anderson, the director, has assembled a cast of ciphers - or, in some cases, very talented actors (Mr. Grant, Joanna Merlin) who have little choice but to play at a single, emphatic pitch. Even Jacek's gang of brave boys lacks any convincing spontaneity as they dash about to perform their acts of derring-do. They come off instead like Dead End Kids who have been unaccountably cleaned up and taught manners at an American prep school.
In the end, Jacek survives. He announces that he has told his tale so that his martyred friends will never become ''part of the nameless, faceless dead.'' Yet ''The Survivor'' achieves exactly the reverse of its hero's claim. Pure as the intent may be, the results are callous all the same.