Suli Holum, Ryan Young, and T. Ryder Smith
in Lebensraum
(© Richard Termine)
Suli Holum, Ryan Young, and T. Ryder Smith
in Lebensraum
(© Richard Termine)
Last week, an international gathering of Holocaust deniers converged in Iran for a two-day conference to assert once again that the slaughter of approximately six million Jews by Nazi Germany did not happen. Such an event gives Israel Horowitz's fascinating and ultimately moving play Lebensraum a stark timeliness. While fictional, the play considers the complex and sometimes contradictory feelings surrounding the Holocaust for both Jews and non-Jews, and what -- if anything -- should be done in terms of reparation.

The premise of the work is that a present-day chancellor of Germany, Rudolph Stroiber, extends an open invitation to six million Jews from anywhere in the world to come live in Germany, with full citizenship and privileges, as recompense for the atrocity committed by that country during World War II. Reactions both within Germany and in other parts of the world are varied, and sometimes violently expressed.

Three actors -- Suli Holum, T. Ryder Smith, and Ryan Young -- play a total of over 80 roles in the piece. Smith is the only one of the three able to give each and every character he portrays not only a distinct voice, but an individual physical characterization. Holum and Young do a good job with their primary characters, but other parts they play are less distinct.

That's a slight problem with the initial 20 minutes of the play, as there are so many people introduced that it becomes a little confusing as to who's who. As the play narrows its focus to roughly half a dozen primary characters, however, Lebensraum becomes much more layered and dramatically compelling.

Horowitz demonstrates how Chancellor Stroiber's good intentions are immediately rendered suspect when the first people to apply for German citizenship under what comes to be called "Project Homecoming" are two gay, Jewish men from France. Suddenly, their papers aren't quite as in order as they initially appeared to be, allowing the German government to handpick their "official" first arrivals: The Linskys, a nice, working-class family from America.

Mike Linsky, a dockworker, and his teenage son Sam, become instant celebrities, and Mike is fast-tracked for promotion. This doesn't sit well with German workers such as Gustav Giesling, who becomes one of the most vocal opponents of these Jewish "new citizens" who are taking away jobs from the local populace. Meanwhile, Gustav's daughter, Anna, becomes romantically entangled with Sam. As might be expected, things do not end happily for everyone involved.

Another of the play's most riveting storylines concerns Max Zylberstein, a Holocaust survivor who journeys back to Berlin to track down the woman who turned him and his family in to the Nazis. Lebensraum mixes humor with chilling drama, exposing the very human fears, prejudices, joys, passions, and sorrows of its large cast of characters.

The production is briskly directed by Jonathan Rest, with the performers switching characters with just a shift of body position and/or the utilization of masks, props, and costume pieces that are sometimes worn and at other times merely held up. Yet, Rest also knows when to slow the action down, letting certain moments linger for maximum impact. The work by designers Susan Zeeman Rogers (set and props), Christopher Bailey (lights and sound), and Esther Arroyo (costumes) all facilitate the quick changes and elegant simplicity of the staging.

The play's title, by the way, references Hitler's expansionist policy and the German people's need for lebensraum, or "living space," for continued growth. Here, it's used ironically, as Chancellor Stroiber's invitation to Jews everywhere to become Germans both impinges upon the existing German populace's ability to expand while simultaneously forcing lasting societal changes.