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The Last Survivor
By Adam Langer
There’s a certain monotony in looking at other people’s family albums. Haphazard shots of weddings, birthdays, and warm honeymoons in Orlando, such collections usually offer an idealized, undifferentiated image of a happy family–which, as we know, resembles every other happy family. The camera may have recorded the squabbles, the low points, the tragedies that make families truly distinct, but those shots don’t wind up in the album.
Eleanor Reissa’s semiautobiographical three-shmatte weepie The Last Survivor, receiving its world premiere at Northlight Theatre in J.R. Sullivan’s fine production, bears more than a passing resemblance to a photo album. Leaping forward and backward in time, Reissa’s defiantly nonlinear drama picks out key moments in nearly 50 years of family history, telling the story of one man’s struggle to start over after the Holocaust. But instead of the traditional collection of grinning moments of contentment, Reissa presents mostly tragedies great and small.
Given that the Holocaust happened only 50 years ago, the title seems a bit premature, but Reissa’s despair over a disappearing culture is convincing. Chronicling a life of almost uninterrupted hardship, she tells the story of one Chaskel Schlusselberg, following him from 1930s Germany to 1980s New York. Through the eyes of his selfless daughter, Helen, we see the moment Schlusselberg and his doomed wife send their son, Heinrich, to England on one of the last transports from Nazi Germany; the unfortunate reunion between father and son ten years later, when Heinrich chooses to stay with his adoptive English family rather than move to America with Chaskel; Schlusselberg’s unsuccessful second marriage and his inability to recapture any but the stiffest, most uncomfortable relationship with Heinrich; his beaten-down life in the New World; his feeble old age in a hospital after a stroke; his bitter existence in a nursing home; and his poorly attended funeral.
Loving daughter Helen, who narrates, is so devoted to making Chaskel’s life tolerable that, though she’s onstage for virtually the entire drama, we see no more than a few glimpses of her life apart from her father. She frets over him, keeps him company and shaves him in the nursing home, takes care of him in the hospital, leaves her friends to visit him: her character is largely filtered through Chaskel’s misfortunes. Though Helen presumably serves as Reissa’s stand-in, the play doesn’t go much beyond Chaskel’s death, concluding in 1983 with Helen’s 30th birthday. The result is a feeling of suspended animation, as if the following 15 years were not worthy of mention.
Focusing on the worst of one man’s desperate struggles and heartrending tragedies may well provide a more realistic representation of the life of a Holocaust survivor than a collection of traditionally happy snapshots. And Reissa does capture some powerful images of a life that can’t be explained in patronizing catchall phrases about the need to survive. With the peculiar exception of Helen, Reissa’s characters are all expertly written and convincing, though bouncing around in time sometimes makes it rather difficult to see their development. The care she takes with Heinrich, who becomes an exceedingly proper but silently tortured English gentleman, is admirable. The pacing is quite good, and many of her brief scenes are economically and movingly written–most notably a tense, unusually subtle scene at the end of the first act, when Chaskel and Helen visit Harry (formerly Heinrich) and his wife, only to discover that far more than the Atlantic Ocean now separates them. But the stripped-down snapshot approach, cutting right to the essence of moments without a lot of introduction, also threatens to rob the drama of some of its impact, breathlessly presenting just the climaxes without taking the time to let them play out naturally.
There are few simple, ordinary moments in The Last Survivor. Every instant seems designed to depict some crucial point in Chaskel’s or Helen’s development, some significant change or vital realization. Which is not to say that Reissa’s work is dreary or lacking in humor, just that it’s often more an amalgamation of intense, deeply felt moments than a free-flowing drama. Presented out of chronological order, these moments feel more like snapshots than ever: it’s difficult for them to fully register. Though I have no trouble believing that 90 percent of the grim incidents in The Last Survivor took place, ultimately the impact of these ever more dreadful events is dulled. By the time we get to Helen’s attempt to conduct a conversation with her father’s casket, the play has become far too manipulative and maudlin to work except at the most rudimentary knee-jerk level.
Sullivan’s astutely paced, well-designed Northlight production features terrific performances from David Darlow as the hard, intransigent, yet deeply loving Chaskel and from Si Osborne, who’s utterly convincing as Chaskel’s son. Jackie Katzman acquits herself well in the role of Helen: a bit too noble and sugary, the character is never quite as insufferable as she could have been.
But neither Sullivan nor his cast can do much with what Reissa has written, especially at the end. Apparently not satisfied with the preceding intense drama and melodrama, the playwright turns spiritual and strangely comic with an overextended epilogue. After Helen’s fruitless conversation with her father’s casket, she calls out to God, beside herself, asking a predictable litany of questions, ranging from why God abandoned the Jews to why He let the Yiddish language disappear. And God answers her in a lilting Jewish fashion that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Mel Brooks
routine. “What should I do?” He asks. “Kill myself?” And when Helen yells at Him, “Fuck you,” God responds, “Fuck me? Fuck you!”
This hackneyed, superfluous comic detour might have been acceptable in a Woody Allen comedy (in Hannah and Her Sisters one father complains, “How should I know why there were Nazis? I can’t even figure out how the can opener works”). And The Last Survivor may well require some comic relief at this point, but God’s borscht belt wit is intrusive and renders His purportedly more profound assertions banal.
Before she’s done, Reissa pulls out yet another theatrical trick, bringing back Chaskel’s spirit and those of his ancestors to comfort Helen, telling her that now she should “go out and be a good girl” to herself. The message may be heartfelt and uplifting, but it’s also familiar, as is the play’s final moment, a somber yet celebratory Jewish folk dance that wouldn’t be out of place in any family’s photo album.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The Last Survivor photo by James Fraher.