Afterlife in the Big City

Antisemitropolis is the city Hitler never built. Blame that on playwright Dan Kagan, who imagines it as the name the Nazis gave their section of heaven -- "a place with only people like them," explains Jerry, a character in Kagan's spirited black comedy Antisemitropolis, now getting its world premiere at...
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Antisemitropolis is the city Hitler never built. Blame that on playwright Dan Kagan, who imagines it as the name the Nazis gave their section of heaven -- "a place with only people like them," explains Jerry, a character in Kagan's spirited black comedy Antisemitropolis, now getting its world premiere at Miami Beach's Area Stage. Of course the Germans had planned to turn Poland into Antisemitropolis after the war, Jerry explains. As for Kagan however, his world-view isn't as horrific. There are no angel Nazis. Himmler does not man the pearly gates. This Antisemitropolis -- the drama, not the afterlife -- is almost as endearing as it is ambitious.

The story's about Rose Lansbury, a sixtysomething widow living in New York who has recently lost her only son. (That would be Jerry.) To ease the burden of caring for Rose, her daughter-in-law Laura has signed her up for an unusual program. It pairs elderly Jews -- some of them Holocaust survivors -- with young Germans, the better to foster... well, what it's supposed to do, other than provide a bizarre sort of free eldercare, is never really spelled out. But in the case of Rose and young Solomon Seibert, it pairs two people who are both fans of '60s supergroup Blind Faith. I kid you not. Rose plays the albums her son left behind; Solomon grew up on '60s rock 'n' roll. Clapton, et al., presumably never guessed how far and wide their music would travel to bring people together.

Oh, there's nothing ordinary about the German youth who wears a Cheerios T-shirt and quotes a famous Jewish writer. Even his name -- his brother is called Abraham -- signals that his parents have tried to instill in him a sense of history, a legacy that he's proud to make good on by caring for Rose. "My mother says it's a miracle that old Jewish people let people like me into their home," he says. And, despite her Lower East Side verbal tics, Rose didn't come from a cookie cutter either. "It's very 'in' to name a child inappropriately," she comments when her daughter-in-law points out Solomon's non-Aryan name.

Early in their strife-torn relationship, Rose (Elayne Wilks) and Solomon (Thomas Mikusz) take a trip to a used-record store so that Solomon can convince her that there is no other Blind Faith album to be had. (The group recorded just one). Lucky for us that these two have this unexpected bit of common ground, because the greater spiritual journey they take together follows a rather predictable path. Put a woman whose parents perished in the Holocaust in the same room with an earnest Generation-X German youth, and the best you can hope for is a spirited discussion of Anne Frank. Rose and Solomon don't disappoint. As if on cue, Solomon points out that even Anne Frank believed in the innate goodness of people, just as Rose's rejection of him begins to get under his skin. "That was before they took her away," exclaims Rose. "She would have added an asterisk to that."

And lucky for us, too, that Kagan throws all sorts of small-but-charming roadblocks in Rose and Solomon's path as they continue to travel the road to mutual understanding. Las Vegas fans, take heart. In case you're wondering what other surprises lie ahead in the Kagan conception of the universe, it turns out heaven's main headliner is Liberace, "only he dresses down now." That priceless piece of information comes from Jerry (Ralph de la Portilla), who visits from the afterlife. He comes to Rose in dreams, sharing with her the wonders of heaven. "It's so nice here.... Everything's well organized," he says. Dressed in monogrammed silk pajamas and a white yarmulke and standing in front of a nightclub microphone, he appears on a platform above the main stage depicting Rose's apartment.

Jerry's presence adds a cabaret feel to Antisemitropolis. He also introduces the notion of human-size grief. But even though de la Portilla's performance and the black-comedy aspects of his character give the play its vitality, as a dramatic element, he overloads the circuits. Where Rose and Solomon will eventually come to see each other as individuals rather than members of specific groups (a theme that's getting a little tiresome these days), Jerry ushers in the idea that Rose has to come to grips with losing a child. I think Kagan's intent is to have us see that the universal and the individual horrors of Rose's life dovetail in Jerry's death. Its gruesome nature is revealed in one of Rose's angry outbursts directed at Solomon. But the revelation that Jerry died violently hits us like a dull swat. What's one violent death compared to six million?

Kagan's ken for melodrama is the most superficial problem plaguing the architecture of Antisemitropolis. As for Antisemitropolis the place, the notion of a Nazis-only afterlife becomes a rather effective metaphor when Rose dreams that Solomon has died and been sent there -- the last place he'd ever want to be. But like the glut of dramatic characters in pre- and postwar Third Reich stories -- from theatrical treatments such as Cabaret to the devastatingly thorough film documentary Shoah -- Rose and Solomon barely evoke, much less explain, the reasons the Holocaust occurred. And while it's natural that Rose might feel resentful that her son had to lose his life while a German kid, albeit a blameless one, is allowed to live, even she must know that it's not fair to make Solomon a scapegoat for what happened in Germany under Hitler. It's also not kind to the audience members, who can figure these things out for themselves, to articulate the characters' various types of anger at God. In these post-Pol Pot days, that sort of existential mindset ought to go without saying.

What shouldn't go without comment is that Kagan is a playwright to keep an eye on, something that HBO, for one, is already doing. His play Mom Mom Dad Dad, written under the auspices of the cable giant's New Writers Program, got a Los Angeles production in 1997, and his work I Told My Mother I Hate Her got a production courtesy of New York Stage and Film in 1995. Vanguard Films has his first screenplay, an adaptation of Gogol's The Inspector General. His biography in the program notes also lists something called Hopper, described as an "animated penguin short." God only knows what that is, but here's hoping Kagan, given the promise of his comic gifts, cultivates the Noel Coward-tinged aspects of his stagecraft rather than, say, the Brechtian ones.

Despite the strong performances from Wilks and Mikusz at the Area Stage, the strength of this production comes from director Beth Boone's deft steering of the play's wonderful farcical elements. If Kagan can't really make a believable connection between the arrival of Solomon and the meaning of Jerry's death to Rose, he does infuse her encounters with her son as a ghost with hilarious gamesmanship. Jerry appears in Rose's dreams and also in several scenes in which she can see and hear him, though Solomon and her daughter-in-law (Ru Flynn, in a solid performance) cannot. The best parts of Antisemitropolis occur as Jerry -- hiding under the sheets in Rose's hospital bed -- becomes increasingly jealous of Rose's growing attachment to Solomon. He threatens to hasten her death if she continues to favor the German: "One kind word, and blood will pour out of your mouth."

Stranger things than the spontaneous flow of blood actually do happen, thanks to lighting director J.C. Rodriguez's engaging special effects. Hans Seitz's set takes marvelous advantage of the somewhat foreboding depth of the Area Stage performance area, mostly by giving us a well-appointed perspective into Rose's apartment and her life. Los Angeles-based playwright Kagan, in Miami for this premiere, is credited with the sound design. If that refers to the use of wind tunnel-like whooshing to indicate Rose's dream states, well, good job, Dan. Next time, how 'bout less Holocaust, more funny ghosts.

Written by Dan Kagan. Directed by Beth Boone. Starring Elayne Wilks, Ru Flynn, Thomas Mikusz, and Ralph de la Portilla. Through May 10. Area Stage Company, 643 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach, 305-673-8002.

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