Review: The Lucky Star Dramatizes One Jewish Family's Letters From Nazi-Occupied Poland
Karen Hartman's play makes its New York debut.
The art of letter writing (and reading) can often be found between the lines. This is especially true when you are corresponding with a person in an authoritarian society — like Nazi-occupied Poland. That is the case for the Hollander family in Karen Hartman's gripping and emotional The Lucky Star, now making its New York debut with the Directors Company at 59E59 as part of the inaugural Volt Festival.
It's summer 1939 and Joseph Hollander (Danny Gavigan, handsome and heroic) is the crack travel agent of Krakow. With the Wehrmacht just eight miles away and poised to strike, Joseph has secured safe passage and Portuguese visas for his entire family, all of whom are Jewish: Mother Berta (Dale Soules), older sisters Dola (Alexandra Silber), Klara (Eva Kaminsky), and Mania (Nina Hellman), Mania's husband, Salo (Mike Shapiro), and Klara's daughters, Genka (Skye Alyssa Friedman) and Lusia (Alexa Shae Niziak).
But while Joseph is dead set on leaving Poland, they aren't ready to assume the worst just yet. And that is certainly understandable when assuming the worst means abandoning a comfortable upper-middle-class existence for the life of a stateless refugee. "Not Anatevka, think Central Park West," our narrator says to help us see beyond our hindsight.
That's Richard Hollander (Steven Skybell), son of Joseph and product of his father's decision to emigrate: After being turned away in Lisbon, Joseph lands in New York, where he begins a years-long battle for legal status. The whole time he sends what aid and comfort he can to the family back in Poland. The voices of the past echo onstage as the actors recite their furtive yet evocative responses, all of which had to make it past Nazi censors. Richard has curated these letters (which he discovered in a briefcase after his father's death) into a book titled Every Day Lasts a Year: A Jewish Family's Correspondence from Poland, which is real.
And yet, we cannot help but suspect that, like his letter-writing forebears, Richard is seeking to conceal something — or at very least, flatten his family's story into a tidy lesson about perseverance in the face of catastrophe. Skybell delivers a somewhat smarmy performance as Richard, gushing about his father's heroism, enthusing about his family's own amateur historical detective work, and pausing to highlight the line that became his title. It all feels like the kind of forced ease one puts on during a job interview.
Director Noah Himmelstein masterfully builds tension and suspense in the first act, culminating in the late arrival of Richard's son, Craig (Sky Smith), to cast doubt on dad's inspirational Holocaust narrative — like Norman Finkelstein crashing the wrap party for Schindler's List. Smith artfully walks the line between loving son and caustic asshole, so that we simultaneously feel bad for Richard and at the same time wonder what exactly he's hiding.
At the risk of printing a spoiler, it's not much — which is just further credit to Himmelstein and his cast, who keep us on tenterhooks until the very end with a script that eventually does settle into a more tried-and-true Holocaust story about courage, sacrifice, and loss.
Several performances stand out: Mike Shapiro and Nina Hellman make a memorably frightening turn as an American immigration officer and translator, hammering Joseph with cold and increasingly accusatory questions in an effort to wear down his resolve. Dale Soules easily slips into the role of Arnold Spitzman, a teenager who accompanied Joseph to New York and managed to survive into old age. And Silber is surprising and delightful as two different woman who find love in unlikely places.
Daniel Ettinger's set perfectly facilitates a story that leaps across oceans and decades, with Caite Hevner's projections of smartly selected historical photographs and Elisheba Ittoop's complementary sound helping to bring this history to life. David Burdick effectively costumes the actors to distinguish between multiple roles. Cory Pattak's lighting seems to invite the ghosts of the past to emerge from the shadows.
You'll want to hear what they have to say. The Lucky Star is a riveting dramatization of the lives of real people as preserved in their letters. It's the only way to hear their voices again as memory slips into history.