“The fine cast … do their best to instil compassion and nuance but are obstructed by too many facts and a stilted script”
On 19th April 1945 Norbert Masur, a Swedish activist and highly regarded representative of the World Jewish Congress, boarded a plane, emblazoned with a swastika, from Stockholm to Berlin. From there he was taken under cover of darkness to the home of Felix Kersten, Heinrich Himmler’s personal physiotherapist. Understandably Masur comes with fear and loathing; especially as it has been arranged for him to meet with the Reichsführer to persuade him to release prisoners from the Nazi concentration camps. It is the eve of Hitler’s final birthday; Germany’s surrender is imminent, and the Third Reich is collapsing. Days are numbered. The covert meeting is taking place without the Fürher’s knowledge. Himmler’s betrayal of Hitler is casting off its cloak of caution it seems, although we cannot trust his reasons for agreeing to the meeting.
The premise is riveting and Jason Taylor’s lighting with Michael Pavelka’s design evoke the right degree of trepidation and tension. Yet while the stakes are high, Ben Brown’s text and Alan Strachan’s staging bring them down to almost floor level in this rather lifeless production. The language has the dull flavour of domesticity that makes light of the shadows and the foreshadows that hang over the topics addressed. Ben Caplan’s Norbert Masur bookends the piece with context setting exposition which is mirrored by the overly urbane and polite dialogue that misrepresents the awful details. The fine cast, including Richard Clothier as the self-assured Himmler and Michael Lumsden as an amiable and slightly obsequious Kersten, do their best to instil compassion and nuance but are obstructed by too many facts and a stilted script.
It should be shocking. The denial of the Holocaust – a vicious product of Nazism and anti-Semitism – is a shocking historical fact. But we need more than Himmler stating, in a rather lazy RP, “I personally have never had a problem with your people”, or “I’ve never acted maliciously”. There is talk of “burying the hatchet” that bounces off the exposition so incongruously that it feels almost like a comedy sketch. Yet the introduction of humour arrives like a nervous gate crasher. If Brown is attempting irony, it doesn’t work.
Himmler left the meeting promising to release a thousand Jews form the camps. Masur is not satisfied but, as he says, ‘it’s a start’. We leave the auditorium with similar misgivings. Olivia Bernstone, as one of the survivors of the camp, suddenly appears and delivers a footnote describing the release from her perspective. Dramatically it is out of place, but it does add a touch of poignancy albeit too little too late.
“For all its initial bounce, though, this show is slow to catch fire”
Another America by Bill Rosenfield, manages to combine two American obsessions — sport, and road trips. Inspired by Dan Austin’s film, True Fans, Rosenfield’s stage version presents us with three characters, all male, all about to take what they hope will be a life changing trip across America. The plan is to cycle from Los Angeles, on the west coast where they live, to Springfield, Massachusetts, on the east coast, to visit the Basketball Hall of Fame. Dan, the instigator of this madcap idea, is a basketball fanatic. He somehow talks his reluctant brother Jared, and his best friend Clint, into coming with him. Even the team’s failure to raise money to sponsor their trip does not derail Dan’s enthusiasm. He is sure they will manage somehow. And manage they do, though their efforts are hardly inspiring. They are constantly being rescued by the kindness of strangers on basketball courts — and in Subway sandwich shops. Which is not an uncommon American experience, if truth be told.
Another America begins on an encouraging note. Donning the naïve enthusiasm of a kind that endears all Americans to each other — and to the world for that matter — actors Jacob Lovick (Clint), Rosanna Suppa (Jared) and Marco Young (Dan) are on stage to welcome the audience from the moment they enter the studio space at the Park Theatre. This informal presentation serves the production well as the actors shift between a variety of roles, and locations. Director Joseph Winters keeps the action bouncing along on a makeshift set, much like the basketball that accompanies our fans on their road trip. Occasionally, the audience gets directly involved. The backstage crew, even when invited, are shrewd enough to decline the offer to participate.
For all its initial bounce, though, this show is slow to catch fire. Another America is a better subject for film than the theatre, for the simple reason that, unless you’ve actually been to middle America, it’s a difficult place to imagine. It’s far easier to film this vast nothingness — if your audience is ready to settle in for long periods of riding across land so flat that you can see the curvature of the earth. Looking at you, North and South Dakota. Indiana, Missouri and Pennsylvania may not be quite as prostrate, but they’re still states in “flyover country” which makes their geographical expanse hugely challenging to convey on stage. The energetic charm of the actors is not enough to paint the pictures of emptiness in words that film, unfairly, can.
For the most part, however, Across America hangs on a series of depressing encounters with people left behind and disenfranchised by an illusory American Dream. Playwright Rosenfield accurately captures the bewildered resentment of these folks. But the first half of the Another America is spent wondering why, despite some of the spectacular scenery that the cyclists travel through, most of the action is located on basketball courts, near double wide trailers, farms on the brink of foreclosure, and Subway sandwich shops in the middle of nowhere. Ironically, a detour to Las Vegas results, not in a lost 24 hours of excess, which is kind of experience we have been led to expect from any encounter in the Nevada desert, but with the team getting the hell out of there as quickly as possible. Fair enough. But this hardly makes for good drama.
Right from the start, we know there is going to be a certain amount of rite of passage material in this picaresque tale. A good example is Dan’s reckless tossing of their trip mascot, a basketball, into the Mississippi River, in a moment of existential despair. He then jumps in after it. And his brother jumps in to rescue him, and the ball. Why rescue the ball? It’s not just that it’s a basketball. It is also covered with well meaning advice from all the people who have bailed them out, at one point or another during their trip. It turns out that meeting these people is more important than even reaching the Basketball Hall of Fame, which can only offer them a free soda as acknowledgement of their epic journey. Not surprisingly, the people they meet, with little to offer, and nothing left to lose, turn out to be more generous than corporate sponsors and money making tourist attractions. It’s a sobering conclusion to what might, under different circumstances, and in a different time, be a more uplifting tale.
Another America provides a glimpse into American life that is sadly recognizable, and rather downbeat. For audiences looking for something other than gritty dramas about big city life, this may appeal. But this story is as much a myth buster about road trips and sports fanatics, as it is an inspiring tale about go-getting heroes, despite the delightful energy of its young cast.