Stephen Kunken inThe Journals of Mihail Sebastian(Photo © Raquel Davis)
Stephen Kunken in
The Journals of Mihail Sebastian
(Photo © Raquel Davis)
Mihail Sebastian, a Romanian playwright and novelist whose work isn't well known in America, was born Joseph Hechter in the small town of Braila in 1907. He later moved to Bucharest where he became prominent during the '20s. Considering the career he'd chosen as a purveyor of boulevard comedies, it seemed a good idea to change his giveaway Jewish name; apparently, assimilating came easily to him in those high-flying days.

But things changed for him and everyone else, as detailed in the journals he kept from 1935 to 1944, which were only published in 1998 and translated into English in 2000: "'Go over to Catholicism! Convert as quickly as you can! The Pope will defend you!' For several days, I have been hearing this same refrain. [My friends] ask me in all seriousness why I am still waiting. I don't need arguments to answer them. Even if it were not so grotesque, even if it were not so stupid and pointless, I would still need no arguments. Somewhere on an island with sun and shade, in the midst of peace, security and happiness, I would in the end be indifferent to whether or not I was Jewish. But here and now I cannot be anything else. Nor do I want to be."

The speech is one of many that David Auburn has stitched into a two-act monologue under the title The Journals of Mihail Sebastian. It's one man's testimony to the difficulty of the World War II years in his homeland; in particular, it's a sad testament to the growth of Romanian anti-Semitism. Before the war ended, thousands of Romanian Jews had been eliminated despite the insistence of the Ion Antonescu government and subsequent Communist regimes that anti-Semitism didn't exist within the country's borders. Sebastian's experiences argue otherwise. Even among friends and colleagues he began to hear blithely damning references to "Yids"; among strangers, he heard worse. Though he consorted with a sophisticated crowd, he eventually suffered the same deprivations of his fellow Jews: radios confiscated, real estate confiscated, freedoms confiscated. Sebastian was never sent to a concentration camp but did come within hours of deportation; he was only spared that fate when the ruling politicians realized that Jews might be a handy bargaining chip in achieving rapprochement with the winning Allied forces.

David Auburn -- uncertain what to do after running into fame's glare with Proof, which pulled off a Tony, Drama Desk, and Pulitzer hat trick -- tells Sebastian's attention-getting story. He happened upon the man's journals and felt they had to be brought to a wider public, so he constructed -- for Stephen Kunken to enact -- one of those theater pieces that a reviewer wants to like much more than he actually does. Sebastian's tale demands serious contemplation as a look at an intelligent, entertaining individual and as a glimpse of an overheated society in nasty times, but Auburn's treatment isn't a play in anything more than the loosest sense.

Rather, The Journals of Mihail Sebastian is a Reader's Digest version of a 700-page-plus book that was edited from journals which had to be smuggled out of Romania by Israeli diplomats and later returned to Sebastian's brother. Auburn introduces the easy-going Sebastian as a café-hopping lad, living in bustling early '30s Bucharest, who likes skiing as well as an actress called Leni. Slowly, the gregarious chap begins giving weather reports on the gathering storm and realizes, when the news of Germany's occupation of Paris hits, that something dire is occurring. In the second act of Auburn's work, Sebastian has confined himself to home while waiting for the worst to befall him, his mother, and his brother. It doesn't, but he does lose his home and his mother's home before peace breaks out and he's left with life but not many illusions.

Working with Keen Company director Carl Forsman and Stephen Kunken, Auburn has put noticeable effort into making Sebastian leap out of his journal and onto the stage. In the first act, Kunken literally table-hops: Set designer Nathan Heverin has placed a half-dozen cabaret tables around for Kunken to dart to and from unceasingly, thereby suggesting the young man's restlessness in a coffee-klatch burg. Sound designer Stefan Jacobs rings a bell or two between each of the journal entries. In the second act, all but one of the tables has been removed and the heavy wall at the back, with its off-center sliver openings, takes on more scenic weight. It's a door/window through which lighting designer Josh Bradford can comment on the reality and grim poetry of what's happening to Sebastian's bombed-out environment.

Selecting segments of the journals in order to cover the Sebastian basics, Auburn does manage to highlight a few cogent themes. As Sebastian evolves from a bright man about town to a hounded, anxious Jew in the midst of what he terms "anti-Semitic delirium," his grappling with the question of identity is etched. The piece pushes forward the question, "How does someone identify him- or herself within a community?" (It wasn't an uncommon question among European Jews at the time.) For reasons that may be quite obvious, Auburn has written The Journals of Mihail Sebastian at a time that is, unfortunately, not terribly unlike Europe during the '30s, when anti-Semitism was on the rise. The concerned playwright certainly didn't begin his project as a response to potentially inflammatory cultural artifacts like The Passion of the Christ, but it can be intepreted as such.

Stephen Kunken, one of the mainstays of The Story earlier this season, may or may not look like the man he's playing (I was unable to locate a photograph of the playwright, who was struck and killed by a truck in 1945), but he provides a lovely portrait of a young blade who comes to realize that he has within him substantial, valid anger to vent. A handsome man in a smart brown suit (Theresa Squire is the costume designer), Kunken is properly disarming when he begins negotiating those tables that clutter the playing area. And when he has to convey the anxiety that begins to turn Sebastian's laugh-lines into worried furrows, he does so with skill.

Asked recently about his distillation of Sebastian's lengthy chronicle into a manageable theater opus, Auburn confided to an interviewer that "it's not a dramatic work" and went on to say of one-person shows, "As a form it never particularly interested me...I hope we found a way to do it that'll feel different to people, even if you've seen a lot of one-actor shows." They haven't. Sebastian, talking about the production of one of his plays, once remarked, "What a strong impact the theater makes." Not enough of one, in this instance.