×

The Grey Zone

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?

With:
Cast: Gus Rogerson (Max Rosenthal), Matthew Sussman (Simon Schlermer), Michael Stuhlbarg (Hoffman), David Chandler (Hesh Abramowics), Christopher McCann (Dr. Miklos Nyiszli), Henry Stram (Muhsfeldt), Abigail Revasch (A Girl), Edward Dougherty (Old Man, Moll).

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.

The Grey Zone

MCC Theater, New York; 79 seats; $15

Production: An MCC Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Tim Blake Nelson. Directed by Douglas Hughes.

Creative: Set, Neil Patel; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Michael Chybowski; music/sound, David Van Tieghem; production stage manager, Bernadette McGay; production supervisors, Laura Kravets Gautier, Ira Mont. Executive directors, Robert LuPone and Bernard Telsey. Opened, reviewed Jan. 11, 1996. Running time: 1 hour, 50 min.

Cast: Cast: Gus Rogerson (Max Rosenthal), Matthew Sussman (Simon Schlermer), Michael Stuhlbarg (Hoffman), David Chandler (Hesh Abramowics), Christopher McCann (Dr. Miklos Nyiszli), Henry Stram (Muhsfeldt), Abigail Revasch (A Girl), Edward Dougherty (Old Man, Moll).

More Legit

  • By the Way Meet Vera Stark

    Off Broadway Review: 'By the Way, Meet Vera Stark' by Lynn Nottage

    After writing two harrowing Pulitzer Prize-winning plays, “Sweat” and “Ruined,” Lynn Nottage is entitled to have a little fun. But while this revival of her new play, “By the Way, Meet Vera Stark,” walks and talks like a screwball comedy, it has a real brain in its head. Before we get too serious, let’s meet [...]

  • Merrily We Roll AlongRoundabout Theatre CompanyMERRILY

    Off Broadway Review: 'Merrily We Roll Along'

    Like the optimistic youths at the end — or is it the beginning? — of “Merrily We Roll Along,” creatives keep going back to this problematic Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical, re-imagining the show in the hope that the end results will be different this time around. They’re not. But disappointments are often off-set by new [...]

  • My Fair Lady Laura Benanti

    Listen: Laura Benanti on 'My Fair Lady' and the Secret to Her Melania Trump Impersonation

    Laura Benanti is now playing her dream role on Broadway. At the same time, the Tony winner (“Gypsy”) is also playing her toughest part ever. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “It’s the most demanding part I think I’ll probably play,” said Benanti, now appearing as Eliza Doolittle in Lincoln Center Theater’s well-received revival of [...]

  • Hamilton West End Production.

    'Hamilton' Panic Over Mistaken Reports of Gunfire Injures Three in San Francisco

    Three people were injured after mistaken reports of an active shooter at a San Francisco production of “Hamilton” caused attendees to flee the theater. CNN reported that a woman experienced a medical emergency — later determined to be a heart attack — during a scene in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play wherein Founding Father Alexander Hamilton is shot on [...]

  • The American Clock review

    London Theater Review: 'The American Clock'

    Time is money. Money is time. Both come unstuck in “The American Clock.” Arthur Miller’s kaleidoscopic account of the Great Depression, part autobiography, part social history, crawls through the decade after the Wall Street crash, dishing up snapshots of daily life. In the Old Vic’s classy revival, director Rachel Chavkin (“Hadestown”) tunes into the play’s [...]

  • Jake Gyllenhaal

    Off Broadway Review: Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Sea Wall/A Life'

    Comfy? Okay, let’s talk Death: sudden death, painful death, lingering death, accidental death, and whatever other kinds of death happen to come into the receptive minds of playwrights Simon Stephens (“Sea Wall”) and Nick Payne (“A Life”). The writing in these separate monologues — playing together on a double bill at the Public Theater — [...]

  • Michael Jackson Estate Cancels Musical Test-Run

    Michael Jackson Estate Cancels Musical Test-Run

    With an HBO documentary that places strong allegations of abuse against Michael Jackson premiering in two weeks, the late singer’s estate announced Thursday that it’s canceling a scheduled Chicago test run of a jukebox musical about him. The estate and its producing partner in the musical, Columbia Live Stage, said that they’re setting their sights on going [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content