Bernard Weinraub’s play The Accomplices examines a largely forgotten piece of history regarding America’s slow-to-action measures during the Holocaust and the American Jewish leaders who found themselves torn between patriotism and their cultural identity. Living in the 1940s, Weinraub’s characters face immigration issues similar to those Americans face today.
The play opens at an immigration office where a line of foreigners wait to gain entrance into the United States. One of the newly arrived immigrants is Palestinian Hillel Kook who quickly changes his name to make it sound more American. Inspired by the real life story of Jewish activist Peter Bergson, Weinraub follows Bergson from his arrival in the United States to his one-man fight to rescue the European Jewish people from concentration camps.
All of this is heady material to put into two and a half hours of drama, but Weinraub combines scenes, video footage and audience asides to create a dramatic tour de force. Peter, played by Steven Schub, is a confident, brazen young man who pushes his way in to meet U.S. congressmen, Hollywood glitterati, and American Jewish leaders all in an effort to break the silence about the atrocities occurring in Europe. Bergson’s best friend, Samuel Merlin (William Dennis Hurley) and love interest Betty (Kristen Kollender) also help and support Bergson’s endeavors. On the other side, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (James Harper) and his advisor Sam Rosenman (Gregory G. Giles), along with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long (Brian Carpenter), are trying to halt the flood of immigrants pouring into America, threatening both the domestic job market and the economy. American Jewish leader Rabbi Stephen Wise (Morlan Higgins) struggles to spread the word about the concentration camps while trying to assimilate in a country that has not entirely accepted him.
The strength of Weinraub’s drama arises in the explosively dramatic moments between Bergson and Rabbi Wise; FDR and his advisor Rosenman; Breckinridge and his assistant Theresa. These scenes naturally build with tension and conflict. When Bergson turns to the audience in order to narrate a running timeline, the dramatic tension is instantly lost and halts the play’s forward momentum. At the end of Act One, the play reproduces one of Bergman’s real life public rallies. The challenge with this closing scene is that the audience is given brutal cold facts about the Holocaust whereas Weinraub gains the most emotion when his characters relay personal stories. For example, Bergson’s jovial best friend Samuel, who is from a small town in Romania, constantly searches for his town in the newspapers and the heartbreaking moment he discovers an article about his town conveys the devastation of the Holocaust far more than facts and figures.
Another particular strength of "The Accomplices" is the acting, particularly Morlan Higgins and Brian Carpenter, who fully embody characters who strongly believe they are right despite what others may think. Interestingly, the lead actor who plays Bergson does a fine job but plays his character the same from beginning to end, leaving us wondering about the complexities of a man who would work so hard to fight such odds.
Set design by Travis Gale Lewis quickly sets the tone for the piece with muted walls and heavy wood furniture. Even though the stage is small, it is transformed into the Oval Office, an upscale restaurant, the Secretary of State’s office and Bergson’s hovel of an apartment. The only part of the set that is distracting is the wall - painted pale yellow and covered in newspaper clippings tacked onto it by the actors as they move through the play. Director Deborah LaVine does an excellent job of staging scenes simultaneously while still giving her actors both room to breathe and time to embrace emotional moments.
The only real flaw with "The Accomplices" is the playwright’s technique in breaking the fourth wall. It’s a hard sell to an audience, especially when relaying historical events. As audience members we want to have something to grasp and relate to rather than being dictated to as to what we should feel.
Capturing a mood and sentiment in U.S. history that is overlooked in textbooks, Weinraub succeeds in portraying one man’s struggle to have his voice (and the voice of millions of others) heard. Peering into immigration in the 1940s, Weinraub gives us a window into past challenges and prejudices of politicians, citizens and religious leaders in hopes of illuminating current problems and issues. Though history may repeat itself, one playwright is hoping we learn from our past mistakes.
Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood. Running time: 2:20 with intermission. Through August 24. Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. $25-$30. (323) 663-1525. www.FountainTheatre.com.