This seems to be the year for Jewish partisans in World War II. First there was Defiance, Edward Zwick’s fascinating film about Jewish refugees holding on to their lives and humanity in the forests of Byelorussia (now Belarus)and trying to avoid the Nazis. Then there was Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, a revenge fantasy in which Jewish partisans club Nazis to death and incinerate Hitler and his high command. Now, inspired by the actual, mysterious poisoning of some 1,900 German prisoners in 1946, Daniel Goldfarb offers his own, darker revenge fantasy. Unfortunately, his misbegotten potboiler leaves a sour taste in one’s mouth. Goldfarb imagines the perpetrators of the mass poisoning to be Polish partisans who lived in the forest during World War II and who now wish to send a message: “The world can’t continue to murder Jews without consequences.” The mastermind of the plot is the tall, lanky Dov Kaplinsky (Adam Driver), a driven vengeance-seeker. His principal accomplices are two women: Anika Stoller (Margareta Levieva) and Dinchka Fried (Cristin Milioti).
Dov’s initial plan is to poison the water in Germany and kill millions of civilians en masse. “The People are the ones who ratted us out of hiding, who named names, who pushed us on the trains, ran the camps, and shoveled our fresh emaciated bald corpses into the crematoriums,” he rants to Dinchka on a train en route to Germany. “It wasn’t Hitler, I’ll tell you that.” (If that sounds dangerously like absolution for the Führer, it’s typical of the muddled notions of the play, which revels in plots and counterplots.)
When Dov is detained by authorities, Anika must put Plan B into action. She has enlisted a yearning, Aryan-looking ex-lover, Jascha (a fine Adam Rothenberg), to agree to get a job in a bakery near the prison camp in Nuremberg and to poison the bread baked for the prisoners. Jascha still carries a torch for Anika, but she wraps him around her little finger—although how she does it with lines like “It’s fascinating that you’re as stupid as you are” may leave one puzzled.
The moral issues of whether the entire German nation is to blame for the Holocaust or whether prisoners of war should be summarily executed are serious ones, but Goldfarb sprinkles them confusingly throughout his melodrama, which features a love triangle, lesbianism and sexual betrayal. “We need to be Maccabees now,” says Dov, referring to the warriors of Biblical times who fought back against oppressors—and echoing a line in Defiance. (Although New Testament beliefs are irrelevant to his Jewish characters, who claim to be atheists anyway, Goldfarb tosses off a gratuitous insult to Christians in the first five minutes.) But the characters so earnestly accept the notion of blood for blood that by the time Dinchka realizes that Dov and Anika’s ideas are warped, one has little sympathy even for her, and the point barely registers.
Leigh Silverman’s production provides a couple moments of suspense. One is a flashback to the war and the forest, nicely lighted by Peter Kaczorowski with a chilly dark blue, and provided with nerve-wracking sounds of tires on gravel and train whistles by Jill BC DuBoff; the other, when Jascha is in the bakery, looking for an opportunity to poison the bread.
In the crucial role of Anika, Levieva exhibits a transparent coyness and a petulance that undermine the ruthless cunning of her character and offset any sense of sexual electricity—she has three people on a string. The character comes off not as intriguing but blatantly repellent, as does Dov.
Neither the playwright nor Silverman has noticed some jarringly modern idioms in the writing: “I’ve moved on,” “I can’t get you out of my system,” “You can’t beat yourself up about that,” and the commonly heard four-letter words that educated people of the era would have considered unthinkable to utter. Goldfarb may have caught a 2009 zeitgeist of Jewish revenge fantasy, but what he’s come up with is a dispiriting hash.