A play about a young Catholic Pole who risked everything to help a dozen Jews during WWII is slippery ground for a critic -- especially when it's based on a real-life hero, Irena Gut Opdyke. Nobody wants to be the heartless Grinch who points out that a Holocaust drama is flawed.
Oh well, here I go then . . .
The noble intentions of "Irena's Vow" -- which opened yesterday at the Walter Kerr after a successful off-Broadway run last fall -- and the emotional punch it packs are beyond question. Its achievements on purely theatrical grounds are not.
Dan Gordon's play is framed as a flashback narrated by the elderly Irena (Tovah Feldshuh), with the bulk taking place during the war years, when Irena (Feldshuh again) hid fugitives in an underground space below the very house of her Nazi employer, Major Rugemer (Thomas Ryan).
Feldshuh goes from 70 to 20 in 10 seconds flat. She switches shoes, loosens her hair and presto -- the 56-year-old actress is a 20-year-old girl in occupied Poland.
It's one of the single most dramatic moments in the production, which says an incriminating lot about the flatness of both Gordon's script and Michael Parva's direction.
Their inadequacy is reflected, for instance, in the handling of the most potentially challenging scenes, which are about making fraught, split-second decisions. ("Irena's Choice," if you will.)
When the Jews, already crammed into a tight cellar, are asked to take in an additional man, should they welcome him or decide there simply isn't enough space for an extra body?
When one of the women becomes pregnant, should she keep the baby, or would its cries alert the major and endanger the entire group?
These are complex, fascinating issues because they pit personal ethics against collective safety. But each time, Gordon quickly sums up the pros and cons, announces the outcome, and glides on to the next cloak-and-dagger episode.
This approach certainly makes for zippy pacing, but it prevents an in-depth investigation of murky moral concerns.
In any event, ambiguity isn't really the point here. The point is Irena/Tovah, and the show is entirely built around both the character and the actress. Feldshuh gives her all, of course, but the constant emphasis on Irena and her quasi-saintly behavior also leeches out conflict and drama.
This single-minded focus may be a blessing in disguise, however, as the cast is wildly uneven. As German officers, for instance, Ryan and John Stanisci are so blandly meek as to make you wonder how these Nazis could possibly have conquered half of Europe.
"Irena's Vow" essentially is an after-school special -- and I mean this in a good way. It's unfortunate the expression has acquired such negative baggage because this particular show is important, and it is presented in a brisk, accessible and appealing manner. Yet while it deals with real issues, "Irena's Vow" also has real problems.
A little-known story of heroism is transformed into theatrical hokum in “Irena’s Vow,” a play by Dan Gordon about a young Polish woman who helped a dozen Jews survive the Holocaust. Susceptible audiences will want to practice their hisses and prime their tear ducts before attending this efficiently manipulative drama covering territory that is rather too frequently exploited for its undeniable emotional force.
Tovah Feldshuh, who played Golda Meir in “Golda’s Balcony” on Broadway, portrays Irena Gut Opdyke, whose life was upended in World War II when the Germans invaded Poland from the west as the Russians invaded from the east. In the clichéd framing device employed by Mr. Gordon, the older Irena addresses the audience at the Walter Kerr Theater, where the play opened Sunday night, as a class of high school students to whom she has been asked to speak about her experience. In a small, thickly accented voice, she bluntly recalls the chaos that soon overtook her life.
“I was 18, my dear children, when the Russians overran our position,” she says, “and I was taken by nine Russian soldiers into the forest and beaten and raped by them. ... I had never been ... unchaperoned with a boy before. ... That was my first date.”
Date? The term is a little jarring, and it is just the first of many unseemly moments in Mr. Gordon’s rendering of a life story encompassing unimaginable suffering. This history deserves attention and respect. The name of Ms. Opdyke, who died in 2003, appears next to Oskar Schindler’s on the wall honoring the Righteous Among the Nations in Jerusalem. But as compressed into 90 minutes of stage time, Irena’s personal tragedy and inspiring courage are mostly cheapened into suspense-driven melodrama.
After the Russians retreat under the German assault, Irena is sent to work in a munitions factory. There she is put in charge of 11 Jews working as tailors for the factory chiefs. One day she overhears a senior Nazi telling the officer in charge of the factory to look for replacement workers. “Within a few months there won’t be a Jew left,” he says before delivering a coolly admiring speech about the German death machine.
When Irena becomes the housekeeper for Major Rugemer (Thomas Ryan), the factory boss, she sees a chance to save the workers who have now become her friends. She sequesters them in the cellar one night after putting a sleeping pill in the major’s bedtime milk. When Rugemer announces that he’ll hire an orderly to help her and lodge him in the basement, Irena demurs strenuously, insisting she can handle the work. With the help of her friends downstairs, she manages just fine.
“Honestly, Irena, you’ve done the work of six people,” the happy major says after a dinner party.
“More,” she cracks.
This crisp laugh line and several others are attempts by Mr. Gordon and the director, Michael Parva, to lighten the grim mood. (Ask not how this gentile young woman comes by her Borscht Belt-ready comic timing.) But they often come across as tasteless, particularly a moment that finds the major accosting Irena and accusing her of betraying his trust.
“It’s about what’s going on in our cellar,” he fumes as she cowers. “They have to be exterminated! Every last one of them!”
Turns out he thinks they have rats. Phew! Chuckles of relief from the audience.
Ms. Feldshuh gives a canny, effective performance that invites admiration without really asking for it. Petite and trim, she is surprisingly persuasive as a woman just out of her teens, underplaying the pathos and reining in emotionalism when it could easily be splashed to the rafters.
Rich opportunities for grandstanding include the scene in which the major discovers Irena’s secret after coming upon two of the women in his parlor, where Irena has brought them for a little fresh air. Flinging herself in front of his gun, she begs him to shoot her.
“They’re Jews!,” he bellows. “They’re Jews! They’re the enemy!” “They’re not, Herr Major,” the kneeling Irena says. “They’re not anyone’s enemy. But if you think they are and that they should be punished, turn me in, punish me. Take me to the Gestapo, I will confess. But let them go, they are innocent.”
Ms. Feldshuh, who also plays some other minor characters, has the only role of significance. The Jews are barely characterized and only spring to life when they interact with Irena. During many scenes they merely sit in the shadows looking miserable.
And we see only three of them, presumably a decision based on economics but a questionable one nonetheless, given the stress Irena herself puts on the importance of every human life. (When one of the hidden becomes pregnant, the Catholic Irena convinces her to have the baby rather than abort it, as the Jews had democratically decided. Having witnessed the Nazis brutally kill dozens of men, women and children, Irena’s “vow” was to save life if given the chance.)
Although the history of the time is sketched in around the edges of the story, the play does little more than crank up the tension as we watch Irena get herself and her charges out of one hair-raising scrape after another. After the major discovers her secret, he forces her to share his bed, making her a figure of disgrace in the town. And when at last the war ends, and Irena helps usher her charges to safety, her story takes a few more strange and paradoxical twists that almost beggar belief.
That is the shame of “Irena’s Vow.” Ms. Opdyke’s potentially moving story is handled in such a banal, ham-fisted manner that it sometimes feels like bad fiction.
There is at least one reason to be grateful that Irena's Vow (* * out of four) has arrived on Broadway: After this production, it's doubtful that anyone will be itching to produce a stage adaptation of Schindler's List.
Like Steven Spielberg's Oscar-winning film, Dan Gordon's new play is based on the true story of a non-Jew who assumed great risk to protect Jews during the Holocaust.
As housekeeper for an SS major, Irena Gut Opdyke, a Polish woman and devout Catholic, was able to rescue only a fraction of the potential victims that Oskar Schindler spared. But what she achieved with far more limited resources, through courage and sacrifice, is undeniably inspiring.
The same cannot be said for the play, which opened Sunday at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Gordon reduces Opdyke's tale to a clumsy, at times cartoonish, melodrama that largely wastes the talents of leading lady Tovah Feldshuh.
Feldshuh was an interesting choice for Irena, given her long résumé of Jewish characters, from Golda Meir to the title role in the original Broadway cast of Yentl. But the actress has proven adept at playing strong-willed women from many different backgrounds, so it's not surprising that she should seem utterly credible in this part — even though it requires Feldshuh, who is 56, to appear as a girl in her late teens and early 20s.
Gordon and director Michael Parva, to their credit, help by introducing Irena as an older woman looking back on her experiences, then inject scenes from her past with asides that clearly reflect the more mature Irena's perspective.
Unfortunately, they also saddle Feldshuh with attempts at comic relief that play like lines out of a soggy Borscht Belt routine. Recalling how she hid her Jewish friends from visiting Nazi officials by keeping them on separate floors of her boss's villa — "When the Nazis were down, the Jews were up. Jews were down, Nazis were up!" — Irena sounds more like Jackie Mason than a feisty Polish maid.
The bad guys, too, are cringe-inducing, and often not for the right reasons. Thomas Ryan basically plays Irena's employer, Major Rugemer, as a pathetic old man, but John Stanisci emotes furiously as his fellow SS officer, Sturmbannfuhrer Rokita, whom Gordon describes as "devastatingly handsome and every inch a Nazi." At one point, Rokita gives Rugemer a discourse on how to make Jews "less resistant" and "more pliable," and he suggests a villain in a bad spy movie.
Feldshuh is also called on to speechify. Addressing a group of schoolchildren, the older Irena says, "You are the last generation who will hear from a living witness to the Holocaust. You have a responsibility. Every time you meet hatred, you must stand up against it."
No one could argue that point. But it would have been nice if Irena's Vow made it in a less predictable, more compelling way.
The conviction of Tovah Feldshuh's transformative performance drives "Irena's Vow," but it's the compelling true story of courage and heroism that makes Dan Gordon's by-the-numbers script so moving. Recounting the experiences of Irena Gut, a young Polish Catholic housekeeper who sheltered a dozen Jews in the basement of the German major for whom she worked during WWII, the play draws its power more from the nobility of its sentiments and the events it portrays than from the writer's over-explanatory treatment of them. Still, if the audible sobs in the theater at key moments are any indication, audiences may be willing to overlook the clunky dramaturgy.
Transferring uptown after a well-received Off Broadway run last fall, the play shuffles dramatized events and direct-address linking commentary in a manner that only partly convinces as theater. With its multiple characters and locations, the story seems a more natural fit for screen adaptation. Or, with more imaginative handling, it might have functioned as a solo show, a format that worked well for Feldshuh in "Golda's Balcony."
But even if Feldshuh's Irena is the vivid center of an exposition-heavy drama otherwise populated by thinly fleshed-out characters and far too much reported action, this is an engrossing tale laced with suspense, horror and uplifting humanity.
Furthering the suggestion it's a test drive for a movie version (Gordon has a background as a screenwriter on films such as "The Hurricane" and "Wyatt Earp"), the play opens with the elderly Irena, years after emigrating to the U.S., addressing a class of high school students. As Feldshuh removes the pins from her bun and blond hair tumbles down over her shoulders, she's suddenly a teenage nursing student back in Poland.
We quickly learn she was abducted by nine Russian soldiers and brutally raped before being repatriated to Nazi-occupied Poland and put to work in a munitions factory. Her Aryan looks and command of the German language land her a spot supervising Jewish laundry workers, and from there, she is appointed housekeeper to Major Rugemer (Thomas Ryan), the town's senior German official. Despite the advice of a friendly co-worker (Steven Hauck) to keep her eyes down and observe nothing, Irena overhears SS officer Rokita (John Stanisci) outline the plan to systematically break down and eradicate all Jews from the area.
With one foot in memory and the other in Irena's present, Feldshuh recounts the chilling turning point of witnessing the vicious murder of a Jewish woman's baby in the town square before the mother herself was shot. Still shaking and breathless from the shock of the episode, she vows to do whatever she can to save lives.
As the remarkable story unfolds, we learn that, at great personal cost, Irena hid 12 Jewish adults for two years in a villa in which Nazis were being regularly entertained at dinners and parties. Director Michael Parva maximizes the many terrifying close calls by having Feldshuh step forward as if whispering conspiratorially to the audience while she recalls the difficult logistics of keeping her stowaways safe, even as word leaked out, blackmail threats were delivered and a baby was born to a couple in hiding.
Feldshuh leavens her performance with disarming touches of shticky humor, deftly coloring the gravity of her experiences with the self-dramatizing flair of a born raconteuse and helping to tone down the hagiographic glow of Gordon's character portrait.
But the figures around Irena are too sketchily drawn to resonate, many of them also played with insufficient nuance. Only the major has some complexity. A decent man who bristles at all the killing and injustice, he uses his discovery of Irena's deception to force her to compromise herself, yet he remains a character of surprising tenderness. Again, however, the signals of his behavior might be more effectively planted via screen closeups.
Gordon tends to dash through key plot mechanics that might prove problematic for stage presentation, such as the movement of the Jews across town, or their delivery to partisans as the Nazis' position collapsed. And events after the war, when Irena was interned as a Nazi sympathizer and was liberated and sheltered by the very people she had protected, are expedited into little more than footnotes.
Parva's production is brisk but pedestrian, its minimal design relying too much on Alex Koch's projections for detail and on Quentin Chiappetta's heavy-handed score to cue emotional responses.
As is often the case in Holocaust drama, the text is not averse to moral hectoring. "You are the last generation who will hear from a living witness to the Holocaust," Irena tells us. "You have a responsibility ... every time you meet hatred, you must stand up against it." Every time you meet bad playwriting, too. It's a testament to the integrity of Feldshuh's performance and of the woman she's playing that the audience responds even while being so transparently manipulated. But there's a difference between an inspiring story and inspired storytelling.