A Holocaust drama written by a survivor of the camps, “The Puppetmaster of Lodz” certainly has prestige. It also has a striking central conceit: Even though WWII is long over, a Jewish man refuses to leave his Berlin apartment, so he spends his days interacting with a life-sized puppet he pretends is his wife. What the play doesn’t have, however, is depth of thought, which makes the premise a missed opportunity.
Still, it’s easy to see why the show, written by Romanian-born Gilles Segal in 1983, had a successful American life after being translated into English in 1988. Segal’s dramatic technique provides clear, potent images of concepts like survivor’s guilt.
In a recurring bit, for instance, a landlady (Suzanne Toren) tries to convince Finkelbaum (Robert Zukerman), the titular puppetmaster, that the war has ended by bringing in a series of doctors and soldiers (all played by Daniel Damiano) to back her up. But no matter what anyone says, Finkelbaum has a reason to reject them. Maybe they’ve printed up a fake newspaper, just so they can capture him. Maybe the Russian soldier’s uniform is a costume.
It’s a funny trope, particularly because Toren plays frustration so well and Zukerman is so proud of himself for outsmarting her. But the device also physicalizes shattered faith. Zukerman’s comic wariness is rooted in persecution.
The puppets, designed by Ralph Lee, also fuse artistry and pain. There are over a dozen in the show — Finkelbaum fills time by rehearsing a puppet play about his escape from a concentration camp — but the most effective is the life-sized rag doll that represents his dead wife.
Her power lies in her lack of features. Really, she’s just a crude bunch of stuffing that barely resembles anything, but Zukerman interacts with her as if she’s real. The thesp’s behavior is natural and fluid, ironically making his performance feel more human. There’s a moment while he’s absentmindedly talking when he puts his arm around the puppet’s shoulders and squeezes. The quick, careless gesture suggests a love that has become second nature.
And that’s heartbreaking. One little hug and we see a distillation of Finkelbaum’s suffering.
Director Bruce Levitt fills the production with these details, often letting small pauses do the work of a hundred words.
Segal, however, gets more and more verbose. The final third of the play trades subtlety for heavy-handed statements. Some of them are confounding, like a revelation about Damiano’s characters that upends what we know and then is never referenced again.
And then there’s the final moment, which reduces the play to a moral sound bite. Anyone who has paid attention will have already gleaned what Segal forces into his writing, and his lack of faith in us only cheapens the accomplishment. With such a tidy summation, his often-profound play becomes dishonest.