At the start of his memoir “The Periodic Table,” Primo Levi writes of the beauty of distillation. In adapting for the stage “If This Is a Man,” the late Italian chemist and writer’s account of his years in Auschwitz, Antony Sher has absorbed that profound respect for the process, translating the essence of Levi’s experience with a calm acuity that makes the material all the more penetrating. Playing a limited Broadway run after much-lauded engagements in London in the fall, this spare solo piece kicks the complacency out from under its audience as it holds them in rapt stillness.
Lasting the play’s entire 90-minute duration, that unbroken attention befits an indispensable piece of theater to which it seems impossible to remain indifferent. Among the most important personal records of the Holocaust and the most eloquent writings of the 20th century, Levi’s books are notable as much for their humanity and compassion as for their analytical detachment, channeling the practicality and precision of a scientific technician through simple, direct language to describe the horrors he endured.
As adaptor and actor, Sher has meticulously crafted a clear-headed correlation to Levi’s approach, straying only minimally from the writer’s words. The play is as much a documentary lecture as a theatrical monologue, in which Sher serves as an emphatically unemotional guide through a kind of darkness unimaginable for most people.
Sher chooses not to acknowledge the bitter irony that after surviving Auschwitz, Levi — who suffered from periodic depression throughout his life — committed suicide in 1987. But awareness of his death haunts the play even as the man onstage embraces life. One of the most arresting touches in Paul Pyant’s carefully calibrated lighting scheme (re-created for Broadway by David Howe) is the play of Sher’s shadow, looming and dancing across the stark concrete walls of Hildegard Bechtler’s set like the specter of darkness Levi was unable, finally, to erase.
“Primo” takes place years after the end of WWII, long after Levi had re-entered the society and family of his native Turin, as he recounts his incarceration in the 11 months leading up to liberation. While the recollections often assume the free-form aspect of a surreal nightmare, Richard Wilson’s production subtly shapes the episodic material into a fluid narrative, as vivid as a startling immersion in icy waters.
The simplicity of the concept is supported by technical work of the utmost exactitude. Pyant’s mercurial lighting outlines individual environments within the death camp while Rich Walsh’s intricate sound design summons terror and dread from the noise of a heartbeat, a dripping tap, the 4 a.m. reveille bell. The marches and popular German songs that accompany work detail take on an infernal, mocking tone.
Stepping onto the stage through a doorway flooded with light, Sher’s Primo appears as a mild-mannered, professorial figure, bespectacled and neatly bearded, in a sleeveless cardigan and tie, the most ordinary of men. Removing his glasses at the beginning and only replacing them at the very end, he proceeds, without Italianate gesticulating but with hands clamped for the most part firmly by his side, to reconjure his time in hell.
The account of Levi’s capture by fascists at 24, the brutal disorientation of his transportation and arrival at the Lager; the removal of clothing and possessions; shearing of body hair and extinguishing of his identity, replaced by his prisoner number, 174517, tattooed on his arm — these details are no less chilling for their familiarity to anyone with a passing knowledge of Holocaust literature or films.
Where “Primo” achieves its real illumination is in the painstaking details: the discomfort of ill-fitting wooden shoes and the terror of crippling infection that will hasten the trip to the gas chamber; the singular dead-men-walking gait of prisoners with swollen feet shuffling to work; the alienating condition in which the state of hunger and your body become one and the same.
Specific episodes have a wrenching poignancy all the more deeply felt because of their matter-of-fact delivery: an encounter with a 16-year-old German Jewish boy “with the serious and gentle face of a child who welcomed me into the house of the dead”; the kindness of an Italian bricklayer who helped save Levi’s life by sneaking him extra food for six months; the shocking sight of fellow prisoners in sunlight for the first time after winter; Levi’s rekindled excitement as “the fever of exams” from his student days courses through his veins when applying for specialist work as a chemist, which also contributed to his survival.
Other recollections are more shocking, such as the chilling account of the Selekcja, during which the condemned are sorted from those to be spared by simple left or right turns; or the humiliation of working with scrubbed Aryan girls in the lab, who smoke cigarettes and file their nails while turning up their noses at the “Stink-jude.”
Recounting even the most harrowing experiences, Levi almost resembles a scholar or anthropologist, observing his surroundings, his cohabitants, captors, even himself and his suffering from outside. Usually a far showier, larger stage presence, Sher’s restraint here allows the horror of Levi’s experiences and the dignity with which he faces them to inch under the skin in unexpected ways. This kind of controlled perf must surely be as emotionally exhausting for an actor as the most fully loaded tragedian turn — perhaps even more so.
Sher’s measured tone only occasionally becomes amplified with anxiety, fear or a tremble of anger. And his pace accelerates only in the final stretch, the chapter titled “The Story of 10 Days” in the book. The limbo of death gives way to an urgent chronology of hope after the Nazis’ departure, as semidelirious Levi, in the infirmary with scarlet fever, counts down to the arrival of four Russians on horseback. His observation of the shame and guilt on the liberators’ unsmiling faces is deeply affecting.
In “A Conversation With Primo Levi by Philip Roth,” published in the U.S. edition of “If This Is a Man” (released here as “Survival in Auschwitz”), Levi explains that he wrote the book, “struggling to explain to others, and to myself, the events I had been involved in.” Sher’s contribution in bringing this essential record of history to a new audience, while remaining entirely faithful to its spirit, is remarkable.