-By Eric Uhlfelder
War and Remembrance
Two teenage kids from opposite sides—a French girl, Elodie, and a German soldier, Otto—are thrown together by war. They meet in an abandoned home in the northern French town of Chartres in 1944. The allies had already landed across Normandy and are heading toward Paris.
And from the east, Russians are racing toward Berlin. Germany has all but lost the war. But the senseless slaughter of civilians continues. Otto calmly tells Elodie he has shot 34 people, including the girl’s neighbor. Later, he explains the invincibility of his people and his hope for a new world order. Elodie doesn’t understand.
One thing she knows for sure, the Jewish woman who owns the home they are in will return. Otto assures Elodie she will not.
Despite the horror and deprivation she and her family have endured, Elodie remains bubbly, playful, innocent. In his blasé manner, Otto, a Hitler Youth turned soldier, explains, “There’s nothing cruel about choosing who lives and who dies.” Such revelations don’t seem important to these kids falling for each other, as if their need for connection is far more important than reality.
This story has rich potential. The script touches upon many contemporaneous issues that could drive a compelling tale if more deftly interwoven with teenage angst about loneliness, fear, and longing. But the dialogue is often prosaic and disconnected from the times, as if, instead, it was about two 21st century New York City kids. Maybe that’s for the audience’s sake. But it’s hard to know if it’s the acting, the script, or direction that make the play often difficult to watch.
That said, there must be something to this show. When it was performed last year in the Jermyn Street Theatre in London, the Guardian called it “a clever production.” Then it arrived early this year at Theaterlab on West 36th Street. It garnered a NY Times Critic’s Pick, the reviewer exclaiming the production “achieved a remarkable, aching alchemy.” Further, when the play at the Cherry Lane Theater ended, it did so to rapturous applause.
A problem when writing about one of the most dreadful and well-known periods in history is that a hip interpretation—even when addressing just a small slice of it—risks colliding with an audience that actually knows what happened. By the time in which the play occurs, millions had already died, countless cities lay in ruin, morality and decency had been abandoned, and many across Europe and the US already knew about the Holocaust.
As a means of providing peculiar levity and depth, an elderly couple—perhaps much older versions of the kids—look on through a backstage window. Their purpose: to periodically sing romantic tunes that may suggest what was to come, or to be apparitions wishing what could’ve been. A video monitor displays the lyrics, and in one instance invites the audience to join in.
Toward the end, after the allies had taken control of the region, there’s sympathetic reference to poor French girls who had their heads shaved, shamed for having slept with the enemy. In other countries they would’ve been tried for collaborating with the enemy or just shot.
My European friend who accompanied me to the Cherry Lane Theater in the West Village lived through World War II. She couldn’t understand what she had just sat through. A freelance stage manager, much younger than my friend, who attended the same performance, had a similar response: “This play definitely makes you think about and want to discuss it afterwards, which might be a point of the uncomfortable content, even though the play’s objective was unclear.”
I agree. I’m not sure what the playwright, Rita Kalnejais, was striving for, save its denouement: in spite of the horror man perpetrates, life does go on. And maybe for some, that works. But not so much for those who can’t suspend reality.
This Beautiful Future runs through October at the Cherry Lane
Theater; 38 Commerce Street in the West Village. Website: http://thisbeautifulfuture.com.