Reviewed by Neal Weaver
West Coast Jewish Theatre at Pico Playhouse
Through March 19
We don’t usually think of the Japanese as being on the side of the angels during the Holocaust. This play reveals how, when the Nazis began rounding up the Jews in Lithuania, the Japanese ambassador signed exit visas for 6,000 of them and sent them to Kobe, Japan to form a settlement.
Though they didn’t know it, the settlers were expected to participate in a plan called Fugu. (Fugu is apparently the Japanese word for Blowfish, a delicacy that can be an aphrodisiac when it’s prepared properly, but can prove fatal if not prepared correctly. In the course of the play, the word takes on multiple meanings.)
The idea behind the Fugu plan was to offer asylum to the 6,000 Jews in Kobe, and send one of them as an emissary to the U.S. to inform Wall Street millionaires in New York, U.S. law-makers in Washington, and wealthy Jews in Hollywood that they were being treated well in Japan.
In the play, Colonel Nohiro Yasue (Ryan Moriarty), who’s in charge of Fugu, hopes thus to avoid war with the U.S. but is opposed by a reactionary Japanese officer (Marcel Licera).
To implement his plan, Nohiro summons the leaders of the Jewish community, Rabbi Shapira (Peter Altschuler) and Dr. Avram Kaufman (Warren Davis), to a Shabbos dinner at his house. But despite Nazi propaganda that proclaims all Jews to be international agents and millionaires, these are simple men from a Lithuanian village, with no knowledge of English and no diplomatic skills. Nevertheless, Avram is chosen to be the ambassador.
Meanwhile, Avram’s daughter Sarah (Rosie Moss), a spunky, independent young woman and a budding feminist, is seriously attracted to Setsuzo Kotsuji (Scott Keiji Takeda), Nohiro’s proper young assistant. He’s shy, inhibited and a bit gauche, but he has learned Yiddish while studying engineering in Israel, and he’s passionately interested in Japanese Haiku. This is enough to prove irresistible to Sarah. And when Avram catches them kissing, he is enraged, and threatens to disown her, and drive her from his house. The elderly Rabbi tries to reason with him and make peace between them.
Things take a darker turn when SS Officer Colonel Josef Meisinger (David Preston) enters the scene. A passionate Nazi, he wants to exterminate the Jewish community in Kobe, and force Japan to be a participant in the mass exterminations. It’s difficult for Nohiro to resist because the Tri-Partite Agreement, signed by Germany, Japan and Italy, gives Meisinger authority over Jewish populations in all the member nations. If Nohiro defies his orders, it could cost him his career and his head.
As a man of honor, Nohiro is appalled that his promises of a safe haven are to be ignored. In desperation he suggests to the Jewish leaders that they and their people be sent to an internment center in Shanghai in order to save their lives. They have no choice but to accept the loss of freedom, property and national identity. But even this alternative is fraught with danger.
The script, by Steven G. Simon and Howard Teichman, takes a while to hit its stride because of the complicated historical background — but when it kicks in, it is powerful stuff. The writers, and Teichman as director, enrich the brew with a canny and sometimes comic depiction of the cultural differences between two rich and authoritarian cultures, the Jewish and the Japanese. (The Jews are taken aback to discover they are expected to eat their Shabbos dinner with chop-sticks — but they solve the problem by producing their own forks.) And they also introduce an earthy thrice-married Yenta (Bryna Weiss) to provide comic relief and pithy comments.
The actors deliver fine work all the way down the line. Particularly commendable are Moriarty as Nohiro, Altschuler as the Rabbi, Davis as Avram, Preston as the Nazi SS man, and Takeda and Moss as the young lovers.
Set designer Kurtis Bedford mingles Japanese and Jewish elements in his designs, and Kaz Matamura and Hai Cohen provide classic Japanese and Hasidic choreography.
Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. (323) 821-2449 or www.wcjt.org. Running time: two hours and 15 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.