Hannah Moscovitch is only 29 but has already carved a considerable reputation for herself in Toronto as a provocative, promising playwright on the strength of two short works (“Essay” and “The Russian Play”) presented at the city’s SummerWorks Theater Festival in 2005 and 2006. She’s now fulfilled that promise with the full-length “East of Berlin,” which opened to an enthusiastic reception at the Tarragon Theater.
Moscovitch’s theme is the aftermath of the Holocaust; she provides a new and startling focus by concentrating on the children of those on both sides.
Her central figure is Rudi (Brendan Gall), son of a former SS doctor who performed diabolical medical “experiments” on women at Auschwitz and is now living a benign existence as a real estate magnate in Paraguay. The more that teenage Rudi discovers about his father’s past — mostly through Hermann (Paul Dunn), the son of another ex-Nazi — the more horrified he becomes.
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Rudi deliberately engineers his father’s discovery of him in a homosexual act with Hermann so he has anexcuse to flee to Europe.
A decade later, while living in Germany and doing research on his father’s crimes, Rudi meets Sarah (Diana Donnelly), the Jewish daughter of a holocaust survivor. They fall into a strange, intense relationship made up of equal parts guilt, loathing and desire.
The astonishing thing about Moscovitch’s play is how funny it is. She’s not afraid to plunge right through areas that others might consider poor taste in order to come out the other side in search of a deeper truth. And the way she also keeps an undercurrent of eroticism bubbling beneath the play is both disquieting and stimulating.
In the end, the writer offers no answers to the questions of guilt and retribution that haunt children from their parents’ pasts, but she poses the problems in a fascinating way that proves truly thought-provoking.
Alisa Palmer’s production is pitch-perfect, capturing all of the shifts of tone the play demands. Camellia Koo’s set, a long book-lined wall which morphs into a variety of places, is impressive as are Michael Walton’s moody side-lighting and John Gzowski’s soundscape filled with echoes of the past.
Gall utilizes his personal charm to make Rudi a more engaging character than his acts might warrant, while Dunn is epicene and self-effacing as Hermann and Donnelly’s Sarah has a nice edge of ambiguity that fits the role.
With its cast of three, timeless theme and skilled writing, “East of Berlin” could easily have a life in theaters around the world.