The Jewish people’s “right of return” is a cornerstone of Zionist philosophy, and was enshrined into law shortly after the creation of the State of Israel. According to this principle, any Jew from around the world can relocate to Israel and become a citizen.
Playwright Israel Horovitz’s “Lebensraum” — currently being revived in Los Angeles by the Harold Clurman Laboratory Theater Company — opens with an outrageous twist on this tenet. As the German Chancellor wakes from a dream, he decides to invite six million Jews to move to and live in Germany.
The “Fatherland,” indeed. The Chancellor’s offer sends shockwaves across contemporary Germany, as well as wherever dispersed Jewry dwells, from Europe to America to Australia to Israel and beyond. Jews begin to trickle in and then flock to avail themselves of the Chancellor’s seemingly generous proposal. But there are some, including members of a Jewish Defense League-type group from Israel, who smell a rat and suspect that the 1,000 year Reich is up to its old tricks. They believe the German invitation is really an insidious ruse to finish the Nazis’ “Final Solution.” Add to this combustible concoction unemployed Aryans who, amidst an economic downturn, must compete for limited jobs and resources with a formerly despised minority who are now being given preferential treatment — in what could be their millions.
Proving once again that the proverbial road to hell is paved with good intentions, all Hades proceeds to break loose. This revival of Horovitz’s 1996 fable, skillfully directed by Don K. Williams, is simply one of the best dramas this stage-trotting critic has had the privilege of experiencing in many months. Making it all the more remarkable is that “Lebensraum’s” many roles are brilliantly performed by only a handful of actors.
Three actors, to be precise, incarnate the 60-plus dramatis personae. Co-star Michael Keith Allen assured me this minimal casting was per Horovitz’s stage directions. Among many other characters, the protean Allen plays a couple of Holocaust survivors at the Antipodes. In one fast moving, sidesplitting scene, he drolly plays both men, signaling who is who via deft doffing and donning of caps, as well as by changing his demeanor, accent and smile faster than a speeding bullet. (As if Allen doesn’t have his hands full enough, he is also the set designer for this show, with its strategically cluttered stage.)
Andria Kozica is likewise chameleon-like, alternately portraying a love struck German teen and an Israeli fanatic on an overzealous mission to rescue the returning Jews from perceived Nazi clutches. As the sweetly innocent young lover Anna, Kozica, who quotes the Prague-born poet Rainer Maria Rilke, is completely convincing and natural, as she is in her other roles.
As her high school lover, a half-Jewish transplant from Gloucester, Massachusetts, Augustine Hargrave, is also believable, as he switches back and forth from the starry-eyed lover to another suspicious Israeli militant and other parts, in this work that moves at breakneck speed, sans intermission.
The concept for and script of “Lebensraum” are indeed compelling, and when a cast member, playing a German scientist, repeatedly shrieks “Heil Hitler!” in response to the Chancellor’s resettlement plan for Jews, it was unsettling and hair raising. I realized afterwards that while I’d heard this chanted often on the silver screen or in History Channel-type documentaries, I’d never experienced this sinister salutation shouted live. It’s an unnerving moment, but not a gratuitous one, in this disturbing play.