It’s that merry old English time of year again — the spring theater season. This week brings back-to-back Broadway openings of plays that originated at London’s Royal National Theater: “Copenhagen” on Tuesday and “Rose” on Wednesday. “Rose,” however, is an atypical English import. It stars American actress Olympia Dukakis and was written by Martin Sherman, an American playwright who lives in London, and it tells the story of a Jewish American octogenarian whose life has been shaped by various turning points — mostly harrowing — of 20th century history.
It’s too bad, then, that this binational artistic alliance, which is being presented at the handsome Lyceum by Lincoln Center Theater, isn’t a more exciting play. It provides Dukakis, who is the sole performer, with a role that’s both technically taxing and theatrically comfortable, and she performs it with admirable humor, intelligence and ease. It will probably play to good crowds during its limited run, thanks to subject matter of particular appeal to Broadway theatergoers.
But there’s something pat and even rote about this cozy tour through the highs and lows of a woman’s life. It’s a familiar-feeling saga of survival that doesn’t linger very probingly or rewardingly on any of the episodes in Rose’s calamity-packed life. The dark background of the Holocaust and its aftermath give the play a kind of superficial gravitas that the writing itself doesn’t often earn.
Dukakis performs the play sitting on a bench — Rose is sitting shiva for a young girl, and, as she proceeds to relate her life story over the next two hours or so, we learn that periods of mourning have been a recurring event in her life. Born in a shtetl in the Ukraine, the intellectually curious Rose followed her brother to Warsaw to escape the stultifying — and dangerous — nature of village life. “I suppose if you have your first period and your first pogrom within the same month, you can safely assume childhood is over,” Rose dryly recalls.
In Warsaw she falls in love with a painter. “Yussel wasn’t a bad artist. He wasn’t exactly a Chagall, but then who is? Jews aren’t visual — look at what they wear,” she cracks, in one of the many shticky moments that alternate with the play’s sticky ones. Those come soon enough, as Rose gives birth to a daughter, Esther, shortly before the arrival of the Nazis in Poland.
Rose survives the ghetto alone and soon finds herself on a boat to Israel, the promised land, where a political contretemps surrounding the Exodus brings her back to life after a period of numbness. Helping out in this respect is Sonny Rose, the Jewish American sailor she meets aboard the ship and eventually marries. They move to Atlantic City, where Rose Rose, as she is now called, starts a new family. Later Rose’s adventurous life takes some more surprising turns, particularly when she takes off with a younger lover to live in a commune (after Sonny’s death, mind you).
Rose’s tough, unsentimental voice is convincingly rendered by Sherman’s colloquial, often piquantly funny writing, and Dukakis impeccably inhabits the heart and mind of this feisty survivor, who still speaks her W’s as V’s (“I vondered vat vould happen…”). The play moves smoothly along under Nancy Meckler’s unfussy direction, with emotional climaxes subtly cued by Joanna Town’s affectionate lighting.
But in the end, Rose’s recounting of the emotional vicissitudes of her saga does not make for a lively evening of theater. A life, however filled with incident it may be, is not inherently dramatic, and most of the drama in “Rose” feels lifted, chapter by chapter, from the history books. This material has simply been mined too often to maintain its fascination in this sober but skin-deep rendering.
Nor does “Rose” dig deeply into any of the larger issues it raises, such as the existence (or not) of God in the hearts of Holocaust survivors, the death of European Jewish culture, and the moral ambiguities of the new Zionist culture that rose from its ashes.
As Rose confidentially recounts the joys and trials of her life, the lovemaking and the heartbreak, the clashes with history and the dramatic surprises, Sherman’s play eventually begins to resemble a solo stage version of one of those panoramic romance novels that plop an indomitable heroine down in a tumultuous historical period and let her run a gauntlet of heart-tugging obstacles on her way to wisdom and contentment. “Danielle Steel’s Diaspora,” heaven help us!