The audience was so quiet during a recent performance of Frank Barth's Zimmerman that the proverbial pin drop would have sounded like a cannon roar. That Barth's drama is a contrived exploration of the obsessive pursuit of revenge that fuels a Holocaust survivor's life was beside the point -- the fail-safe subject matter, the gripping production, and the superb performances justified that kind of intense audience absorption that can lift even the most banal material up several notches.
Not that there is anything banal about Barth's intentions: Zimmerman is a serious, well-crafted, well-intentioned work that follows its formula to the letter, but without any shocks, originality, or humor to set it apart from an increasingly crowded pack. It draws on every Holocaust or revenge drama of the last 60 years for its inspiration, most particularly Arial Dorfman's Death and the Maiden and William Styron's Sophie's Choice. And yet the story of the Holocaust and its aftermath, no matter how familiar, warrants retelling if only to reinforce the horrific truth that history can, and does, repeat itself. But the heavy-handed, predictable didacticism got in the way of the truly riveting drama Barth intended.
It is to director Eric Parness's credit that Zimmerman remained dignified despite some real howlers in the dialog (Zimmerman, defending the Nazi agenda, accedes that "perhaps Hitler overdid the anti-Semitic thing" ) -- in a less-assured production, a line like that would have (and should have) brought down the house with its self-important, hilariously overstated sanctity.
Angus Hepburn as Aaron Acosta, the tormented survivor; Brad Makarowski as the memory of Zimmerman; and Anna Zastrow as Aaron's gentile, German-born partner drove the production with deeply felt emotion that never read false; if the otherwise impressive Rick Forstmann were a little more self-assured about his lines, the above-mentioned trio would have been a quartet of superpowers.
S. Kim Glassman's set was uncomplicated, workable, and finished with professional élan, David Rigler's costumes likewise, and Pamela Kupper's lighting gave the show some eerie moments when called for, especially the bluish cast that kept the physical memory of Zimmerman a taunting, ghostly presence.
But despite the lack of originality, Zimmerman's quiet intensity nevertheless had the chops to keep an audience more interested in the play than in themselves, thanks to its intensely focused production and its universal, perhaps timeless, theme. After all, WWII ended less than 60 years ago, and the Holocaust is still within living memory. Dachau, the concentration camp mentioned in the play, is only a 20-minute subway ride from downtown Munich. Sort of like Forest Hills.
(Also featuring Lou Patane and Austin Torelli. Note to Mr. Barth: Dachau did have a gas chamber, but it was never operational. Inmates at Dachau died in other, equally horrible ways, but not in the gas chamber.)
Copyright 2002 Doug DeVita