'The Holy Rosenbergs'

Ryan Craig's old-fashioned new play "The Holy Rosenbergs" comes across as Jewish Arthur Miller, for better and worse.

The family appears to be holding everything together but their calm masks a crisis. There are generational rifts, the rattled, once-powerful father is in deep denial, and when a daughter conveniently reveals hitherto secret testimonial from the dead pilot son, the father’s suppressed guilt over his death floods forth. Sound familiar? It should, since it’s the plot of “All My Sons.” Oddly, it’s also that of Ryan Craig’s old-fashioned new play “The Holy Rosenbergs,” which, for better and worse, comes across as Jewish Arthur Miller.

Of course, Miller was Jewish but his plays rarely addressed his Judaism. The exceptions were “Broken Glass” and “Death of a Salesman,” the latter being about a man desperate for acceptance by those around him. That, too, motors Craig’s play, which examines the notion within a contemporary context over one night with a family in Edgware, a predominantly Jewish area in North London.

Everything pivots around Danny, the late, beloved son of David (Henry Goodman) and Lesley (Tilly Tremayne), who died in Gaza fighting for the Jewish homeland. It’s the night before his funeral and, worse, there are rumors the funeral will be disrupted not by anti-Israeli protestors but by pro-Israeli ones. Why? Because Danny’s lawyer sister Ruth (Susannah Wise) is working on a committee investigating possible Israeli war crimes.

The (unseen) protestors are fuelled not only by Ruth’s supposed disloyalty but a sense of being permanently beleaguered by the largely pro-Palestinian stance of the British media. And members of the community are already shunning David and Ruth’s long-standing kosher catering business which had been badly hit by the fallout from a case of food-poisoning.

Although the business was cleared of all responsibility, the stain remains so the pressure is on to regain standing via the contract to cater the smart wedding of a senior local doctor Saul (Paul Freeman). Add to that the disaffected second son Jonny (Alex Waldmann), still living at home and loathing it, and the unexpected appearance of Ruth’s high-powered boss Stephen (Stephen Boxer) and the metaphorical table is set around which everyone will argue their perspective on personal/political responsibility.

Ironically, it’s Craig’s responsible even-handedness that proves most problematic, further hindered by weak exposition. “Oh spare me the generations of Rosenbergs speech, I’ve heard it all before,” cries Ruth. But that’s exactly what Craig doesn’t do. Back story already well-known to the characters is too often reiterated for the benefit of audiences.

Attempting to use the warring, unlistening family to mirror the situation in Gaza, the play sets up too many neatly balanced oppositions. And although the acting in Laurie Sansom’s neat in-the-round production causes temperatures to rise considerably in the second act, emotional tension keeps being broken. There are simply too many dilemmas being resolved. Everything gets aired from sibling rivalry, self-worth and one’s relationship to history/community to the responsibilities of war, the right to self-determination and the wider political perspective, each individually embodied by some kind of personal revelation.

Goodman, a superb Shylock at this address, pulls all the stops out as self-deluded David. But the calmer performances register more strongly. Tremayne’s forbearance as the hard-working, dog-tired wife and mother is touching while beautifully composed Wise resists the temptation to pile sanctimony onto a character who stands accused of being “so right all the time.”

Craig’s observation is acute and his linking of convenient, personal memory loss with the actions of the Israeli state is insightful and important. It’s a shame that he tries too hard, as if attempting to write “the” contemporary Jewish play rather than achieving “a” Jewish play.

The Holy Rosenbergs

Cottesloe, London; 313 seats; £32 top

Production

A National Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Ryan Craig. Directed by Laurie Sansom.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Jessica Curtis; lighting, Oliver Fenwick; sound, Mike Winship; music, Jon Nicholls. Opened, reviewed Mar. 17, 2011. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN

Cast

David - Henry Goodman
Lesley -Tilly Tremayne
Ruth - Susannah Wise
Jonny - Alex Waldmann
Saul - Paul Freeman
Sir Stephen Crossley - Stephen Boxer
Simon - Philip Arditti

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