Reviewed by Paul Birchall
Rogue Machine Theatre at the MET
Through October 30
Playwright Oliver Cotton’s elegiac and unexpectedly thrilling drama carries the weight of the world on its shoulders — not just the pain and sadness of growing older, or of lost or squandered love, but the legacy of the Holocaust itself.
The play opens as a bit of a mystery story. Jewish Holocaust survivors Manhattanites Joe (George Wyner) and Elli (Sharron Shayne) are an elderly married couple who have lived a mostly quiet life — he’s a retired accountant, and she lives for their regular dance competitions. Late one night, though, Joe’s long-lost brother Billy shows up on the doorstep. Joe and Billy haven’t seen each other for over 35 years, since Billy ran out on the family business decades earlier.
Billy’s reasons for arriving out of the blue turn out to be quite shocking: He’s on the run for murdering a man he believes is the Nazi prison guard who tormented them years ago, and who may have been living all this time as a happy suburban dad and husband. Joe and Elli’s horror over what Billy has done, and Billy’s absolute certainty that he’s done the right thing, conflict — but that’s only part of the story. Also buried deep within the subtext is the fact that Elli has loved Billy for years, and can’t understand how all three of them seem to have frittered away their lives.
Cotton’s play isn’t perfect: The juxtaposition of a Nazi vengeance subplot alongside more universal themes of aging, grief, and lost love comes off as rather awkward, with the drama lurching from one aspect of the story to another in a manner that’s occasionally unconvincing. Part of these fluctuations might be chalked up to the author’s intent: Notions of moral ambiguity and mistaken choices come up again and again. Even so, the plot stumbles on the psychological sloppiness of Billy’s act — his spontaneous committing of the murder is not entirely believable. While it’s true the play is set in the 80s, before the Internet, there should have been some sort of due diligence on Billy’s part that would assure him that he’d be killing the right person and not some innocent stranger.
Still, the dialogue is rich and organic, and conveys how these older people are now being forced to grapple with mighty concerns, long after the time in their lives when they thought they’d have to.
Abetted by director Elina de Santos, the acting is beyond powerful. It’s a real joy to see performers of a certain age realizing plays with this much emotional impact. Wyner’s grumpy, pragmatic Joe goes beyond type, and he’s nicely matched by Shayne’s comfortably Jewish mama. But it’s Fancy’s turn as Billy — an aging retiree who’s lived a certain kind of life, but who abruptly transitions into a nearly unhinged, adrenaline-driven fellow (who might be a madman!) that is the show’s masterpiece performance. All three performers do a fine job depicting people who, while they have physically aged, still see the younger versions of themselves in each other.
Met Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford St., Los Angeles; Sat. and Mon., 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 3:00 p.m.; through October 30. 855-585-5185 or www.roguemachinetheatre.com. Running time: 2 ½ hours with an intermission.