Lynn Cohen and Stephanie Roth Haberle
in Eavesdropping on Dreams
(© Francisco Solorzano)
Lynn Cohen and Stephanie Roth Haberle
in Eavesdropping on Dreams
(© Francisco Solorzano)
Some would argue that any attempt to fictionalize the Holocaust -- as Rivka Bekerman-Greenberg does in her well-meaning debut play, Eavesdropping on Dreams, being presented by Barefoot Theatre Company at The Cherry Lane Studio Theatre -- is inherently exploitative. The counter-argument is that these stories need to be told and retold, in every conceivable format, so that we never forget.

To be effective, however, such stories need to be told skillfully. And while Bekerman-Greenberg's heart is clearly in the right place, and the work's three actresses give it their all, her play suffers from beginner's gaffes such as clunky exposition. Moreover, director Ronald Cohen doesn't do enough to avoid its tonal discrepancies. The result feels more like a case study than a full-bodied drama.

The narrative links three women who have chosen different means of coping with their history. The grandmother, Rosa Eberkohn (Lynn Cohen), survived 4 ½ years of severe privation and forced labor in the Polish ghetto of Lodz, only to be carted off in the summer of 1944 to Auschwitz, where she gave birth to a daughter. Emigrating to New York, Rosa did her best to shield her child from their horrific past, and succeeded perhaps too well.

On the surface, Renee Eberkohn-Stern (Stephanie Roth Haberle) is a dynamo, a super-competent pediatrician who heads the neonatology department at Mt. Sinai Hosptial. (In too neat an apposition, she "saves babies," a task at which her mother tragically failed). Relentlessly upbeat on the surface, Renee is plagued by bad dreams, shaped by her mother's suppressed memories.

Moreover, Renee has a very odd way of dealing with her demons: she arranges Nazi-themed role-playing dates via the Internet. This particular coping strategy seems a stretch, but, given the author's background -- both as a child of two survivors and as a psychoanalyst specializing in the treatment of trauma passed down along generations -- one must trust in her veracity.

The third member in this chain of damaged women is young Shaina Eberkohn (passionately played by Aidan Koehler), who precipitously dropped out of medical school to participate in the 2004 March of the Living, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the "liquidation" of the ghetto. While Shaina is on fire to learn more about her roots, she meets resistance from her two foremothers: Rosa, because the memories are too painful, and Renee, because she's too set in her pattern of rising above adversity.

Whatever emotional bulidup has been created is hobbled by the play's rickety structure. The action is framed -- and interrupted -- by observations offered by Rosa's rabbi brother, Yakov, who perished during the pogrom.

Unfortunately, Mike Shapiro is discomfittingly smarmy in this narrator role, and he's also over-the-top cartoonish as Chaim Rumkowski, the German-appointed chairman of the ghetto, who preys on the community under his control. Risibility is the last quality you want in a Holocaust drama.