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August 8, 2009

"Dreyfus in Rehearsal" Performs Poorly

Summer can be a challenge for theater lovers like me. We’ve already seen the Broadway shows that have survived the traditional post-Tonys melt. And the big off-Broadway companies tend to shift into vacation mode, serving up the theatrical equivalent of whatever doesn’t require too much time in the kitchen.

So that means we’re left to the mercies of the smaller companies and the summer festivals. Sometimes we luck out as I did with the late spring holdovers Next Fall (which closes tonight) and The Temperamentals (which you’ve still got a chance to see before it closes on Aug. 23). More often, we don’t have much luck at all. The recent revival of Dreyfus in Rehearsal fell in the boggy middle. It’s interesting enough that I’m glad I saw it. But not enough so that I’d urge a friend to seek it out.

Indeed, the most interesting thing about the play is its back story. In 1974, Jean-Claude Grumberg, a French Jew whose Romanian-born father was deported and died in a Nazi concentration camp, wrote a bittersweet comedy about a Jewish amateur theater group putting on a play about the Dreyfus Affair.

The setting is Vilna, Poland, the time is 1931 and most members of the troupe find it difficult to connect to the anti-Semitism that caused the French Army to falsely accuse the Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus of treason 40 years earlier or to acknowledge the growing racial intolerance in their own time. Dreyfus in Rehearsal won France’s Prix du Syndicat de la critique for the best play of the year.

Later that fall, Garson Kanin (most famous for writing Born Yesterday, directing the original production of Funny Girl, co-writing the Tracy-Hepburn movies “Adam’s Rib” and “Pat and Mike” and having great marriages with Ruth Gordon until her death in 1985 and Marian Seldes until his death 1999) adapted the play for Broadway. The cast included Gordon, Sam Levene and a young Tovah Feldshuh. But something got lost in translation. It closed after just 12 performances.

This year’s revival was even less successful. It opened at the Beckett Theater on Sunday and closed last night, after just six performances. Dreyfus in Rehearsals draws broad stereotypes and both the director and the actors colored nicely within those lines. And there was poignancy at the end when, after an attack by some gentile thugs, the troupe dispersed to other cities and the audience could guess the fate of its various members by where they went. Still, I left feeling as though the play—and its jokes—might have been more at home at a community theater in Sun City.

But maybe not even there. For Dreyfus in Rehearsal reminded me—in setting and tone—of To Be or Not To Be, the poorly-received remake of the Ernst Lubitsch movie about a Polish theater troupe during World War II that Manhattan Theatre Club put on last fall, and The Singing Forest, Craig Lucas’ ill-conceived farce at the Public Theater this past spring. With the exception of Mel Brooks’ “Springtime for Hitler”, theatergoers just don’t seem ready to joke about the Holocaust. Or maybe it’s simply that if a show wants us to laugh to keep from crying about that horrendous time, then it’s got to be really, really funny.

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