EmptyVenue: Fountain Theatre, Los Angeles (Through Aug. 24)
Even if you’re Jewish you probably haven’t heard of Peter Bergson, a man whose service to the Jews during the Holocaust rivals that of Oskar Schindler or Raoul Wallenberg.
Bergson (born Hillel Kook), a committed Zionist, came to the U.S. in 1940 to help raise a Jewish army in the struggle against Hitler. As news of the Holocaust leaked out, he changed his mission to saving the remaining Jews of Europe. This meant persuading the Roosevelt administration of the urgency of acting immediately in a number of areas, particularly in assisting refugees.
The objective proved elusive, though ultimately Bergson is credited with helping save the lives of at least 200,000 Jews. The story is fascinating because it sheds light on one of the darkest chapters in American history, and this includes the reaction of the American Jewish establishment, led by Rabbi Stephen Wise.
In “The Accomplices,” Bernard Weinraub, a former political correspondent at the New York Times, tells the provocative story in a balanced but no-holds-barred manner that lets the uncomfortable facts speak for themselves. In Bergson (Steven Schub), he also has an inherently dramatic character because the man was anything but politic in the way he conducted himself. He was abrasive, headstrong and arrogant, part of the reason the Jewish establishment tried its best to silence him and even have him deported. Not only were they showing their loyalty to FDR (James Harper), they feared Bergson would alienate the president and the American people as well.
But Bergson’s main obstacle was Breckinridge Long (Brian Carpenter), a highly placed member of the State Department whose upper-class anti-Semitism and control over administration refugee policy cost the lives of many Jews. The play points out that Roosevelt was indifferent to the plight of the Jews and only took positive action when finally forced to by a small rebellion in his administration led by Treasury Secretary Henry Morganthau (Dennis Gersten).
Director Deborah LaVine’s cast does a splendid job with this thorny material. Schub is compelling as the impassioned Bergson, a man easier to respect than to like. Harper captures Roosevelt’s patrician cadences and steely core perfectly. William Dennis Hurley is moving and convincing as Bergson’s immigrant colleague Samuel Merwin, a Romanian Jew who lost his family to the Nazis. Others who appear with distinction are Kirsten Kollender, Gregory G. Giles, Donne McRae and Cheryl Dooley.
In some ways the play unfolds like a modern version of “Antigone,” who, following the dictates of conscience, had to fight the power of the state to the bitter end. Only Bergson had to fight his battle on two fronts: with the state and with his own people. Perhaps the second conflict personally cost him more.
Cast: Steven Schub, James Harper, Morlan Higgins, William Dennis Hurley, Brian Carpenter, Dennis Gersten, Kirsten Kollender, Donne McRae, Gregory G. Giles, Cheryl Dooley, Stephan Marshall. Playwright: Bernard Weinraub. Director: Deborah LaVine.