In the end, an artist must follow the muse.
You never know where it will come from and Daniel Goldfarb is not the first playwright to be inspired by a news item. But this one (described in two 1946 clippings distributed with the play’s press kit) is about a scheme to kill some 2500 German prisoners of war with bread that has been laced with arsenic. A scheme that resulted in many getting seriously ill—but none dying.
What makes this significant is that, whatever Mr. Goldfarb does to dramatize this, he is perforce writing a drama about the futility of empty gestures—about impotence. Now this too can be a valid dramatic theme—but best, isn’t it, if it’s about real potential thwarted, as expressed by the denizens of Harry Hope’s saloon, or so many characters in Chekhov plays. Or if the character at the center has fallen from his or her version of grace and aggressively seeks a way back…like Willy Loman or Antonio Salieri or, in her way, Amanda Wingfield.
But the playwright’s very foundation is a scheme that came to naught, so much so that it is but a historical footnote, so in a sense our plotters—four angry, vengeful young Jews in the immediate aftermath of WWII—are impotent from the start and have nowhere to go beyond that. Well, the one place where they’re not exactly impotent is, by (I have to assume) intentional irony, the sack. The two men and two women have various and variable romantic fixations on each other, and the sexual politics figure into the play even more than their nefarious plan, which makes everyone involved seem a little demented—and some of them are. And these are people who’ve known no prior glory, who have no nobility to aspire to, who are essentially self-centered, and bereft of meaningful loyalty even among themselves.
And this takes the notion of impotence as a dramatic theme beyond the tolerance point, because none of the characters is a universal touchstone for audience empathy, let alone sympathy. So all they can do is incur your impatience. Additionally, as an intrigue, the game isn’t worth the candle—the plan is so simple that there isn’t much to discuss, or much to dramatize that we don’t see coming miles before it’s enacted, which results in an imbalance of elements: the unsavory romantic intrigues take over and the political/criminal intrigue is both marginalized and attenuated. As suspense storytelling goes, it’s a very inexpert job, by a very gifted (and often very funny) playwright who (dare I suggest) might have known better; and neither the direction by Leigh Silverman nor the work of the cast can do much to rise above it or help it.
Of course, it’s very easy for me to say Mr. Goldfarb might have known better; when one is in the throes of following the muse, one often doesn’t, or can’t, if one feels the path he's on is compelling enough. The best we can do, if we’re vigilant enough, is trace the path to where the muse is leading us, look backward from that point, and as clinically as possible, ask if an audience would really want to follow us there…Go to David Spencer's profile