Ethnic Theater - Jewish
"The Very Sad Story of Ethel & Julius, Lovers and Spyes, and about Their Untymelie End while Sitting in a Small Room at the Correctional Facility in Ossining New York"
Theater for the New City, Manhattan
An Off-Broadway theater offers one more take on the Rosenberg convictions and executions—some fifty years after the fact. (Convicted of spying for the Soviet Union, the Rosenbergs were electrocuted at Sing Sing Penitentiary in 1953.) Now at the Theater for the New City, the 90-minute show bears a title that’s almost as long as its content: “The Very Sad Story of Ethel & Julius, Lovers and Spyes, and about Their Untymelie End while Sitting in a Small Room at the Correctional Facility in Ossining New York.” This pretentious, arty, medieval-type label proved to be a good clue of what was to come.
In some ways this amateurish effort was a puzzlement, in other ways a downright disappointment. Why has the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theater taken on this project? What is their message or point of view? Are they out to exonerate the Rosenbergs—or justify their sentences—or just humanize the characters? Not clear.
Furthermore, where were the puppets of this puppet company? In the past, fine puppet work has come out of the Czech tradition, and we expected no less this time around. But, alas, only teddy bears (if they can be called puppets) were on hand, representing the couple’s sons, plus the occasional appearance of two miniature figures (you know who) in electric chairs.
Actually, the tale was told through live actors, for better or worse. Though Theresa Linnihan as Ethel and Brian Glover as Julius gave poignant performances in the leads, others were less than competent, even embarrassing on occasion. Not even the musicians (accordion, bass and drums), with original music by Linnihan, could save the day.
Nevertheless, the show served as a catalyst, to send this reviewer scurrying back to the books, to research the Rosenberg case. Turning back the clock, we found that the Rosenbergs were arrested at the height of the Big Communist Scare (in the McCarthy era). American Communist groups took up their cause, insisting they were innocent martyrs. Such support was probably more destructive than helpful, given the tense, feverish ambience of the times. Finally, in that circus-like atmosphere, were both convicted--and on flimsy testimony. (They were the first—and only—civilians ever executed for espionage.)
But later years revealed, through deciphered Soviet messages, that Julius had indeed spied for Russia, though he provided little useful information. Yet Ethel had probably been innocent, and the couple left behind two young orphaned sons, Michael and Robert (adopted by the social activist and songwriter Abe Meeropol).
The question remains: how much were the severe punishments meted out to the Rosenbergs a matter of blatant anti-Semitism? Yet there were Jews involved in the Rosenbergs’ trial: Judge Irving Kauffman, assistant to the U.S. Attorney Roy Cohn, and defense lawyer Emanuel Hirsch Bloch.
Whatever the shortcomings of this little play, it does force one to re-examine and muse upon an infamous case in infamous times—and upon the issues of bigotry, hatred and fear.
-- Irene Backalenick
Dec. 1, 2008