Tim Blake Nelson’s horrific play takes the problem of survivor’s guilt to a high level: How should we feel about Jews chosen by their Nazi overseers to do the dirty work at Auschwitz, corralling innocent people into the gas chambers, shoveling their bodies into the crematoria, cleaning up the ashes, in exchange for a few extra days of life? The so-called Sonderkommando knew, if “The Grey Zone” is to be believed, that their own life span in the camp was four months, max; and yet they performed their grisly tasks in exchange for favorable treatment.
“I didn’t really despise the Jews until I realized how easily they could be persuaded to do the work here,” says a Nazi (Henry Stram) near the play’s end. “And do it so well.””The Grey Zone,” which is based on little-known accounts of the Sonderkommando and, particularly, the memoir of Dr. Myklos Nyiszli, a Hungarian Jew who survived by becoming an invaluable aide to the insane torturer Dr. Mengele, recounts a moment in the lives of these enablers that reveals the universal need to find forgiveness and redemption.
The main characters are four Hungarian Jews who know their time is about up and are planning an insurrection, and Nyiszli (Christopher McCann), who has become a special case because of the clinicalefficiency with which he dispatches the corpses of twins — children, of course — destroyed during Dr. Mengele’s “research.” Nyiszli has kept his own family alive by bargaining with the Nazi watching over them, who drinks too much and obviously harbors at least some doubts about what he’s doing.
The plot, such as it is, revolves around the discovery of a girl (Abigail Revasch) who has survived the gas chamber and been revived by Nyiszli. Her resuscitation closes the first act and can only lead the audience to wonder, given the bleakness of her prospects, why they bothered. But, in fact, saving the girl redeems them all; it is a mark of Nelson’s anguish in setting out this disturbing story that all of the characters have glimmers of humanity, despite the inhumane things they do, and the need for redemption.
“The Grey Zone” is built on Primo Levi’s intimation that merely surviving under such circumstances is a criminal act, as Nelson declares in a program note. The playwright cannot tolerate the notion that the instinct to survive may be reason enough to abet terrible occurrences, and though “The Grey Zone” is, until its final moments, an unsentimental play, it does strive to imbue these men with higher character, not only in their efforts to save the girl but in their work on behalf of the planned insurrection.
It’s a most sympathetic overview, and one that makes “The Grey Zone” watchable. Whether it should be watchable, however, is another question. Douglas Hughes has staged a searing production with a superb ensemble of actors. The stage effects, particularly of the unholy work of the crematorium, are expertly realized.
It’s all so effective, in fact, that I found myself admiring the stagecraft, the performances — and then pulling back: How well Abigail Revasch portrays a girl whose life force has made her survive the gas chamber. And then I wonder, well, why weren’t the life forces of the other girls strong enough? And if Gus Rogerson, Matthew Sussman, Michael Stuhlbarg and David Chandler are so good as the Hungarian Sonderkommando, why don’t they survive, too?
Once the mind begins debating such questions, the play or the movie or the book begins to seem pornographic — we distance ourselves from these obscene images of violence by trying to parse them, work them out. And, oddly, the better the production, the harder these questions fall.
This is not meant to assault Nelson’s seriousness of purpose, which is everywhere evident. It’s just that I don’t quite know how to assimilate a play like “The Grey Zone.” Riveting to watch, it’s ultimately a disturbing slice-of-death drama. It isn’t cleansing, and it certainly offers no catharsis, despite a coda that strives for a poetry that the rest of the play has wisely avoided. At least the author’s sympathies are never in question. “The Grey Zone” is informative and awful at the same time. That may be enough. Perhaps survival should be deromanticized, though only Dr. Nyiszli survives “The Grey Zone,” and we never find out what happened to him. Now there’s a story.