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The Accomplices

Bernard Weinraub's docudrama about the U.S. response to the Holocaust is intense and disturbing. logo
Andrew Polk, Daniel Sauli, and Zoe Lister-Jones
in The Accomplices
(© Carol Rosegg)
As Bernard Weinraub's heavy-tonnage docudrama The Accomplices unfolds, the effect is like that of an entire population -- you among them -- feeling a slow, steadily mounting burn. While the sensation is uncomfortable enough to have you shifting in your seat, it is absolutely necessary.

Presented by The New Group, The Accomplices is the disturbing tale of how much about Adolph Hitler's meticulously planned genocide was known by the United States government, the Jewish community, and even the American citizenry by 1942 -- and how much was officially done to postpone effective intervention. It's also the tale of a small contingent of Jewish activists, led by crusading immigrant Peter Bergson, who changed his name from Hillel Kook on entering this country.

This isn't a scoop. Thanks to previous written work on Bergson's life, Weinraub didn't have to do much investigative digging to tell this grisly tale. A reporter for The New York Times for much of his career, Weinraub's method of jarring today's audiences is to alternate scenes of Bergson (Daniel Sauli) fighting his aggressive campaign with sequences depicting resistance against the crusade by the administration of then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Jon DeVries) as well as by America's most prominent Jewish leader, Rabbi Stephen Wise (David Margulies).

In the course of two intense acts, Weinraub takes high-level anti-Semitism as a given and puts forward the debate among United States Jews -- influential columnist Walter Lippmann among them -- concerning whether it was best to speak up and possibly exacerbate anti-Semitism or to remain publicly silent and work quietly within the system. The debate was mostly one-sided, with the less outspoken winning most of the battles but the smaller group eventually gaining a few victories.

Facing a situation in which neither loudly complaining nor keeping mum proved to be the answer, Weinraub is obviously furious at the upshot: that there's no perfect solution. We sense his frustration that the best he can do 60 years later is offer a work that serves as a harsh reminder during a time of contemporary genocides. Still, he manages to bring impressive nuance to his writing.

Weinraub's smoothly intercut scenes unfold on a set that Beowulf Boritt has designed to represent multiple offices and group headquarters. Meanwhile, the playwright shifts from Bergson's activities and his attraction to Betty (Zoe Lister-Jones) a dancer whom he later marries, to FDR's complex relationships with Jews tapped by him for White House duties. Weinraub also turns his considerable attention to Breckenridge Long (Robert Hogan), the unsympathetic official handed refugee policy-making duties by the President.

Because he's refracting history and is determined to get the facts indelibly out there, it's not surprising that Weinraub doesn't accomplish everything he sets out to do. For example, Bergson's relationship with Betty is cursory. At the end of the first act, he stuffs in a ham-handed montage pitting a celebrity-packed memorial pageant that Bergson organized at Madison Square Garden against a Keep-America-for-Americans talk made by FDR relative Laura Houghteling.

Weinraub has presumably put some imagined speeches into the mouths of his figures. It seems questionable that some of the prominent personages were as profane as he suggests. Moreover, it's unlikely if not inconceivable that Roosevelt would have said to a Jewish consultant arguing for Rabbi Wise, "Supporting Hoover in '32 was the dumbest political move of his life. And I thought you people were smart."

Fortunately, the playwright's ire is matched by director Ian Morgan and a top-notch ensemble. Sauli leads with a steely glint in Bergson's eye; Margulies plays Wise with double-edged authority; DeVries is a mercurial FDR; and Hogan is expert as the unctuous Long. They unfailingly slam across Weinraub's message that not only can it happen here, it did.

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