The heavy canopy of predestined doom hangs over Bernard Weinraub’s “The Accomplices” from its opening moments. The story of American indifference to saving Europe’s Jews from Hitler is one deserving, even demanding, of a thoughtful retelling. But Deborah LaVine’s production at the Fountain Theater proceeds as if the full mournful outcome were known from the get-go, sapping this earnest first play by a former New York Times reporter of much strength and dramatic interest.
As real-life activist Peter Bergson (Stephen Schub) knocks on doors to rail and rally both officials and civilians to rescue someone — anyone — from fully documented mass slaughter, we expect to pound the pavement beside him. We want to hope, as he says he’s hopeful this argument or that stratagem may finally bear fruit.
But Schub’s intense, humorless Bergson forestalls audience empathy through his utter certainty of his quest’s futility. Each rejection is met by a stern look and shrug, pegged by romantic interest Betty (Kirsten Kollender): “Nothing affects you. You hit stone walls and you’re left unscathed.” This unvaried gloomy mien — and unvaried guttural accent calling attention to itself, however authentic it may be — dampen the spirit before it ever has a chance to rise.
Beyond the play’s heavily ladled-out exposition, the presentation of Bergson’s formidable opponents contributes to a sense of cardboard historical pageant. It’s shocking to hear the open and casual anti-Semitism spouted by President Roosevelt’s cousin Laura (Cheryl Dooley) or State Dept. refugee czar Breckinridge Long (Brian Carpenter), but the broad strokes in which these bigots are painted defy credulity.
The accomplices with more complex psychologies — FDR (James Harper), Samuel Rosenman (Gregory G. Giles), Rabbi Stephen Wise (Morlan Higgins) — almost come off worse because they deserve better. Weinraub decries their passivity in the face of genocide without getting a real fix on their motives, or granting each much of a chance to defend himself. The uncertain portrayal of these towering figures is troubling, as all become mere tools in Weinraub’s blanket indictment.
Veiled references from the right to “foreigners” coming to our shores to “take our jobs” are clearly meant to evoke the current immigration debate, but their glibness, and the vast differences in historical circumstances, rob them of their intended resonance.
The script features some sharp exchanges, dampened by the speechifying and self-important extended pauses LaVine indulges throughout. Travis Gale Lewis’ drab back-office setting, decorated with piles of newspapers, is no more inviting under Ken Booth’s lighting, which seeks interesting effects (shadows of windows like prison bars) but just seems muddy.
There’s much blame to go around in this well-documented blot on America’s honor, and Weinraub deserves kudos for throwing down the gauntlet. It’s just regrettable that his command of characterization doesn’t match his research skills and passion, with LaVine playing into the script’s weaknesses instead of against them.