Daniel Ahearn and Maria O'Brienin Mrs. Feuerstein(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Daniel Ahearn and Maria O'Brien
in Mrs. Feuerstein
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
It's 1965, and Holocaust survivor Adele Feuerstein has taken a position at a small Pennsylvania college. She's there because she suspects that a fellow faculty member and his wife were present at, and did nothing to stop, a wartime slaughter of Jews on a remote site in Poland. This crusading woman lends her name to Murray Mednick's Mrs. Feuerstein, and she is out for revenge.

What Mednick has in mind is clear: He's addressing the complications that can arise when people thwarted in seeking justice for crimes out of all proportion to human understanding dart off on their own impulsive, retaliatory missions. The subject he raises is not an uncommon or an inconsequential one; innumerable victims of many recent holocausts are dogged beyond reason by their desire for some sort of score settling. They want answers for the unanswerable. What Mednick has actually accomplished is also clear, and it's not much. He hasn't written a very good drama in Mrs. Feuerstein. There are those, of course, who maintain it's not possible for artists to adequately deal with Holocaust; others say that it can be and has been done by Elie Wiesel, Steven Spielberg, et al. But this is an argument for another time; it doesn't really pertain to Mednick's insufficient piece of dramaturgy, shakily directed by Roxanne Rogers.

The stage of Chashama@135 on West 42nd Street is divided into three playing areas for this production. At stage left on Michelle Malavet's set is a psychiatrist's office where Mrs. Feuerstein (Maria O'Brien) goes for therapy sessions with Jane (Samantha Quan), a young Asian woman who also uses this space when she reports to her supervisor, Dr. Samuelson (Martin Shakar). The couple under suspicion, Max and Freida Wohl (Daniel Ahearn and Lynnda Ferguson), resides on a couple of chrome chairs placed stage right. During the course of the action, these two and Mrs. Feuerstein enact a revenge play that the driven analysand is writing. At the center of the stage, covering a narrow area from the apron to the back wall, is a space meant to serve as the corridors of the building where Max and Adele teach; here they frequently run into one another and also encounter another colleague, Dr. Baum (Kevin Shinick).

In the real life of the play, Freida Wohl is in a wheelchair; in Mrs. Feuerstein's developing psychodrama, she has the use of her legs. This rule-of-thumb allows audience members to keep straight in their heads whether what is unfolding is actually happening or is only a figment of Mrs. Feuerstein's rampaging imagination. Another way to figure that out is to keep an eye on Jeremy Morris's lighting, which is generally bright when the Wohls are at home but switches to a shady red when, in Mrs. Feuerstein's script, the couple is up to no good.

An odd fact about Mrs. Feuerstein is that various descriptions of the play, whether contained in interviews that Mednick has given or in reviews of the play (which originated at the Mednick-founded Padua Hills Playwrights Festival) or in press materials, fail to reflect a consistent concept of Mrs. Feuerstein. At times, her status as a Holocaust survivor is said to be in doubt; elsewhere, even her Jewishness is questioned. Mednick may have wanted to suggest that characters in extremis lose their ability to differentiate between illusion and reality, and he has succeeded in transmitting that condition to observers.

As Mrs. Feuerstein begins, the title character arrives to teach creative writing. Although she has a few impressive credits as a poet, she doesn't get much effective mentoring done; she's too preoccupied with securing a dinner invitation from the Wohls so that she can be sure she's found the correct targets. Put off repeatedly by Max, she starts writing a lurid play in which she and Freida begin a lesbian affair. (In the play, Mrs. F. gets to kiss the object of her affection and say things like: "Oh, sit down, you kraut cunt.") Though she does finally get the invite, she's too much on edge to earn the satisfaction she seeks. At the end of the school year, the patient Dr. Baum has to inform her that she's been let go.

The big mystery about Mrs. Feuerstein is why Mednick thought he could achieve his ends by making the title character an off-putting paranoid, by showing us her elaborate but ludicrous play-within-a-play, and by giving over so much time to expository but pointless discussions of Mrs. F.'s case history by Jane and Dr. Samuelson. The fantasy is which the perhaps oppressive Freida is turned into the subjugated Freida may have some basis in psychological dynamics--but, as written, it's too laughable to be meaningful.

Given the unconvincing nature of these roles, the actors shouldn't be assessed so much as patted on the back for their cooperation and wished well in their next assignments. This is particularly true of Lynnda Ferguson, who keeps a stiff upper lip throughout and looks sexy as hell in the form-fitting clothes she wears as the panting, ambulatory Freida. Unfortunately, Maria O'Brien as Mrs. F. trembles like a reed in a high wind from beginning to end; she's so worried about what she'll find out, or whether she'll be found out, that she can hardly stand up straight. In her French braid and the boxy '60s suits that costume designer Harwood Lee has provided, O'Brien is almost always bent at the waist and supplicating. She vibrates through Mednick's mercifully short two acts as if she were caught in the film Friday the 13th, checking the dark room at the end of the hall to see what that strange noise was. Surely there is another, more subtle approach to portraying paranoia.

Mrs. Feuerstein's final line, delivered by Freida in her red lesbian dress, goes: "Adele Feuerstein is coming from the Jews." It's meant to be both menacing and promising and, as such, is heartening. The hard truth is that some kind of accounting for the Holocaust is still due humanity. It's too bad that Murray Mednick's play on this profound theme is so unsatisfying