Vít Hořejš’sThe Very Sad Story of Ethel and Julius, Lovers and Spyes, and About Their Untymelie End While Sitting in a Small Room at the Correctional Facility in Ossining New York tries to be many things: a history play, a musical, a tragedy, and even a modified puppet show, but it winds up becoming a mishmash. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were married American communists convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage against the United States. They were sentenced to death and executed in the electric chair in 1953, leaving their two young sons orphaned. The story surrounding their actions is filled with intrigue, innuendo, betrayal and misguided idealism. It’s a shame that this production shares so little of those elements with us.
Above the stage hang blackboards filled with mysterious mathematical formulae and intricate drawings. Yet, we never hear about the secrets that Julius (Brian P. Glover) proffered to the Soviets. And we hear little from Julius himself, other than a well-worn bit of Marxist propaganda. Julius is curiously bereft of personality for a character so immediately central to the story. And Ethel’s portrayal is bound up for too long with that of her lower East Side mother, who admonishes that she forgo her dreams of singing on Broadway, get married and have children. This could be the yarn of any number of young women from post-Depression immigrant families in New York City.
The play also spends far too much time on events that have only general application to the Rosenbergs: the entire first half of the 20th century, the Great Depression, and World War II—events that were “formative” for the Rosenbergs, as the production’s press release asserts. It’s fairly safe, though, to conclude that such major events and eras were “formative” for anyone who happened to be alive at the same time as the Rosenbergs.
What this play needs to address is: What did the Rosenbergs do? Why were they arrested? What did they know? And why did they do what, in light of recent evidence, we know for a fact that Julius, at least, did: pass atomic secrets, however arguably useless, to the Soviets? Without intimate involvement in the espionage story of the Rosenbergs themselves, whether factual or whimsical, this generic play cannot live up to its ambitious title. In fact, we learn more about the history of the electric chair than we do of the actions that made the Rosenbergs the first civilians executed in the United States for espionage. The Rosenbergs here come across as ineffectual and almost senseless individuals who are simply acted upon.
It's an intriguing idea--the Rosenbergs as figurative puppets--but it's somewhat disingenuous, too. The play too conveniently skips over some parts of the "sad story." Julius was not a dumb man; with a degree in electrical engineering and radar experience in the Army Signal Corps, Julius had access to something the Soviet KGB clearly wanted. And, he supplied them with it. While the ultimate fate of the Rosenbergs was decided by skilled and cunning prosecutors who pulled the strings and unsuccessfully used the less implicated Ethel as a "lever" against Julius, surely free will played a major role in bringing the couple to that fate.
The production boasts of using “found objects” as symbolic proxies for characters and settings in the play: “So a bed frame doubles as a lectern and a pulpit; office chairs double as electric chairs,” states the press release. Similar things are done by a lot of companies on limited budgets. Yet, using teddy bears, for example, in place of the couple’s children proves to be a misguided idea that greatly detracts from the intensity of the tale. And, though the play was conceived by the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theater, the only literal marionettes featured are miniature ones of the Rosenbergs that never move and a giant teddy bear that gets electrocuted by Thomas Edison. Don’t ask.
Another problem with this play, peppered generously with sometimes clever musical numbers, is that no one in the cast sings well. Deborah Beshaw as Ethel’s mother, Michelle Beshaw as the unscrupulous prosecutor Roy Cohn, and Theresa Linnihan as Ethel are all particularly egregious examples, but there's hardly a decent voice in the entire ensemble—not a good thing for a musical play. Several members of the cast might have also profited from the assistance of a dialect coach.
Complicating things further is that most members of the ensemble play multiple and sometimes unnecessary characters in such a way that it is difficult to keep their identities straight. Some theater companies (the Elevator Repair Service immediately comes to mind) are skilled enough to control and capitalize on such confusion to the benefit of the production, but this group cannot.
One bright spot in the production is Michelle Beshaw’s costuming; it effectively conveys a sense of New York’s lower East Side at the turn of last century. And it is remarkable just how much Ms. Linnihan and Mr. Glover resemble, from extant photos, their historical counterparts.
Yet, The Very Sad Story of Ethel and Julius never gets us below the surface of these potentially fascinating characters. In the end, we’re left looking at the walls, trying to figure out just what of this confused concoction actually stuck.