Saturday, March 7, 2015

Evoking a past when A Happy End still seemed possible

Last night, I saw Iddo Netanyahu's play A Happy End at the Abingdon Theatre Company. Set in Berlin in the early 1930s, the piece splendidly evokes the excitement and glamor of a now lost world.

Much to the show's credit, it makes you forget at times that we all know how this story is going to end. The delightful cafes, the charming music, the splendid theatre scene of pre-war Berlin all come to life, and like the characters onstage, we don't want this carnival of culture and refinement to ever end.

South African-Israeli actress Carmit Levite plays Leah Erdmann, a woman who exemplifies the sophistication and high civilization of Germany. With her blond hair and statuesque figure, always dressed elegantly, whether in an evening dress or in resplendent lingerie, Leah Erdmann seems to personify everything that is German. However, she is also Jewish, and we all know what will happen to her unless she gets out of the country soon.

Leah's husband, Mark Erdmann, played by Curzon Dobell, is a physicist whose work has suddenly come under attack. To his profound shock, he is accused of writing papers containing degenerate "Semitic Physics" as opposed to good, wholesome "Aryan Physics" as if the laws of nature cared about the religion or ethnicity of their discoverer.

His assistant, played by Joel Ripka, eventually convinces him to reluctantly apply for jobs abroad. But when an acceptance letter arrives from Princeton, he and Leah find it difficult to contemplate leaving their home. "New Jersey?" they ask. "What on earth would we do in New Jersey?"

Live, of course is the answer, and up to the very end, the play holds out the hope that the Erdmann's will do just that.

Even when Mark and Leah strike us as somewhat jaded, it becomes impossible not to sympathize with their son Hans, played brilliantly by Phil Gillen, making his Off-Broadway debut. Hans is a poet and a great admirer of Heinrich Heine. In addition to being one of the greatest lyric poets Germany ever produced, Heine also happened to come from a Jewish family.

When both Hans and his idol Heine are accused of writing poetry that is "too Jewish" his girlfriend Martha (played by Allison Siko) suggests he is being too sensitive to criticism. Her remark might be entirely valid, were it not for the coming darkness that we in the audience all know is descending on Germany.

Abingdon regular Lori Gardner rounds out the cast as Anna, a young secretary taken under the wing of both Herr and Frau Erdmann. Anna is delightfully both good natured and clueless, attending plays with Leah which she does not understand, and helping her boss Mark navigate the perils of a new university administration which she does not want to understand.

The entire production is beautifully directed by Alex Dmitriev. Projections, skillfully designed by Dennis Corsi, help to create the atmosphere of the piece, as does David Margolin Lawson's sound design. (I still want to know where he found a German version of the song "Million Dollar Baby!")

A Happy End is playing through March 29th. For more information, check out Abingdon's website:

Abingdon Theatre Company