- The Washington Times - Monday, March 23, 2009

In 1979, Leslie Epstein wrote a novel about the Holocaust, “King of the Jews,” that was wildly controversial because it took a comedic tone in its treatment of a group of simple people forced to collaborate with their oppressors. Mr. Epstein has adapted his novel for the stage in a difficult world-premiere production at Olney that combines shtick and suffering, and the result is rather like the Marx Brothers bursting into “Sophie’s Choice.”

Set in the Astoria Cafe, a Jewish-run nightclub in Poland’s Lodz ghetto during the Nazi regime, “King of the Jews” is an existential take on Holocaust atrocities that contains elements of Sartre and Beckett as well as a study of desperate human behavior you might see in a classic Agatha Christie drawing-room murder mystery.

The 10 denizens of the Astoria Cafe are minding their own business, playing their instruments, telling coded jokes — “Horowitz” is a code name for Hitler — and drinking their liquor. The town’s police chief, Wohltat (a silkenly evil James Konicek) arrives with the news that everyone in the cafe must become part of the newly formed Judenrat, a council of Jewish leaders for the ghetto. They must appoint a leader and carry out the day-to-day activities of a local government; all revel in their power, feasting and wearing fancy clothes and squabbling over petty territories.

Soon, they realize they also have to carry out the Nazis’ orders. This includes designating which Jews will be deported to the death camps, although Wohltat describes these destinations as “farms” where the people will gather eggs and pick radishes all day. Suddenly, the members of the Judenrat are trapped — they cannot perform these tasks, but they cannot refuse, either. How do you handle a terrible choice that is essentially no choice?

The bulk of “King of the Jews” shows the characters grappling with conscience, duty and denial. In these people, we mostly see the worst human behavior, as even a noble group gesture near the end seems hollow and self-serving.

It doesn’t seem proper to slam a Holocaust play, but “King of the Jews” suffers from its bipolar swing between lightheartedness and unmitigated misery. The comedy does not work onstage, and it seems deranged that people would be cracking bad Borscht Belt jokes moments before death.

The dialogue is leaden with detail, with an emphasis on stating and restating the obvious. This puts the fine ensemble cast at a disadvantage because they resort to extreme hamminess and histrionics when delivering their lines. There is not much either regal or redeeming about “King of the Jews.”

★★

WHAT: “King of the Jews” by Leslie Epstein, adapted from his novel

WHERE: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

WHEN: 7:45 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, 1:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through April 12.

TICKETS: $28 to $49

PHONE: 301/924-3400

WEB SITE: www.olneytheatre.org

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