Sunday, May 10, 2009

Irena's Vow, reviewed

I mentioned a while back that I had been to see Irena's Vow. The takeaway, in four words: Great story, lousy play. If you'd like more details, my review is in the May 8 issue of Commonweal -- and available to nonsubscribers online.
Playwright Dan Gordon focuses narrowly on Opdyke’s plan to save Jewish lives, cramming the events of several years into a bumpy ninety minutes. The result is a hurried exercise in Holocaust-drama shorthand: swastika armbands, yellow stars, uneven German accents. So many factual details have been removed, for expediency, that the plot feels less than credible. And though Tovah Feldshuh gives a commanding performance as Irena (Opdyke’s Polish name), she is constantly in motion, rushing from one plot point to the next. Irena addresses the audience almost constantly, but she never seems to stand still long enough for anyone to get to know her.
Opdyke's story is so remarkable it beggars belief -- and that's if you tell it accurately. The version in the play is particularly difficult to swallow because, as it turns out, it's playing fast and loose with the facts. (For example: How did they manage to hide a newborn baby without its cries being heard? The play never explains...probably because, in reality, they didn't. The Jews left the cellar where they were hiding before the baby was born.) Adam Feldman's review in Time Out New York, which I've just read, makes a good argument for why such fabrications are particularly troubling in a play that appropriates the solemn duty of Holocaust remembrance. My objections to the playwright's departing from the facts were less ethical than practical -- if you're going to change things, your changes should at least have some sort of dramatic advantage. Don't take out details that would make the story better, for heaven's sake. Anyway, historical inaccuracies aren't the only problem the play has: it's also hampered by a (mostly) weak cast, clunky dialogue, and (as Charles Isherwood rightly noted) an awkward sense of humor. Tovah Feldshuh's performance is quite good -- better than it has any right to be, considering she's nearing 60 and her character is around 20 -- but the play is otherwise a disappointment. The best thing about it, for me, was that it moved me to look for Opdyke's memoir, In My Hands, which is a much more thorough and rewarding telling of her story. I recommend the book, but skip the play.

P.S. Restricted View readers have a special fondness for writers getting defensive and embarrassing themselves on the Internet. In that spirit, I direct you to this post of Adam Feldman's on the TONY blog... with comments from Dan Gordon, responding to Feldman's (completely fair) criticisms. That's... no way to demonstrate your talent as a writer, Mr. Gordon.

1 comment:

Amy said...

Wow. thanks for that salient proof of why one shouldn't try to engage one's online critics.

But if I did, at least I could spell, and I wouldn't add weird extra spaces before my periods. sheesh.