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Strange Bedfellows of Art and Politics

“I have never hated the individual Jew — yourself I have cherished as a friend, but you will know that I speak in all honesty when I say that I have loved you, not because of your race but in spite of it.” — Martin Schulse in a letter to his friend and business partner, Max Eisenstein, in the play “Address Unknown.”

When director Frank Dunlop read Katherine Kressmann Taylor’s 1938 novel, “Address Unknown,” he knew he wanted to adapt it for the stage and to direct it. “It’s [about] the whole way conflicts develop,”Dunlop said in an interview with the Forward. “Watch out if you have extreme views. You’ll suddenly start overlooking what horrors you are doing to other people, and you’ll excuse them just like the German does in this play. That got me.”

“Address Unknown,” at the Promenade Theatre in New York City, follows two men from Germany who open an art gallery in San Francisco after World War I. The fact that Max Eisenstein is Jewish and that his friend and business partner, Martin Schulse, is not makes little difference at first; in fact, their differences seem to foster a broader base of customers. But when Schulse returns to Munich, their friendship becomes strangled by his growing admiration of Hitler and the burgeoning antisemitism taking over the Fatherland.

The play joins several others dealing with the individual’s response to antisemitism during World War II, from the Tony Award-winning “I Am My Own Wife” to smaller productions like David Auburn’s “The Journals of Mihail Sebastian.” Dunlop believes that after an absence of politics and religion in the theater, audiences are again interested in more substantial subject matter because of the current political climate in the world.

Despite the fact that Taylor’s novel uses an epistolary form, Dunlop believed the material would work on the stage because of the quality of the writing. “Since they are writing letters, they don’t speak ordinary English,” he said. “It’s like going to a great classic play.” Dunlop also was drawn to the way Taylor developed the narrative.

“She doesn’t just put good arguments in the mouth of the Eisenstein,” he noted. “She also puts the best arguments in the mouth of the German. You get a true conflict of people with absolutely different ideas.”

And he hopes the play is forcing audiences to rethink some misconceptions about Jews. “They weren’t just passive, saying yes to everything,” he said. “They did fight and they did resist. There are a lot of Jewish heroes around. I think it’s a good thing to remind young Jewish people that it wasn’t just extremist Jews who fought back. It was ordinary Jews who were just living ordinary, peaceful lives.”

A Presbyterian father and Jewish mother in a small town outside of Leeds, England, raised Dunlop. “My mother did a marvelous version of fish cakes, but it wasn’t until much later I realized she was making gefilte fish,” Dunlop remembered, adding that working on the play has given him a chance to revel in his Jewish heritage. “It was a traditional Jewish upbringing without know- ing it.”

P.G. Kain teaches at New York University and Barnard College.

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