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“I began drinking after the war. It was very difficult. Claude, you asked for my impression. If you could lick my heart, it would poison you.” –Itzhak Zuckerman, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, to Claude Lanzmann, in Lanzmann’s epic documentary Shoah

Last winter I worked as dramaturge on the National Jewish Theater production of The Dybbuk–S. Ansky’s mystical love story in which a wealthy man’s daughter becomes possessed by a “dybbuk,” the soul of a young Hassid who died trying to win her hand. One day during the run of the show I got into a conversation with an audience member, a Holocaust survivor named Irene. She told me she felt that many Holocaust survivors are possessed, too, in a way; that their own souls have been taken over by another, more powerful soul. A soul of pure anger and pain.

Robert Shaw’s The Man in the Glass Booth deals with just the sort of possession Irene was talking about. The title character, a financier known as Arthur Goldman, has been taken over by a dybbuk out of the death camps. Like the ghetto fighter in Lanzmann’s film, he knows this dybbuk is toxic–a poison in his heart. But like the rich man’s daughter in Ansky’s play, he welcomes it all the same.

This is heavy stuff. Unquestionably some of the heaviest stuff a 20th-century playwright can presume to write about. Which is why it’s a little disconcerting that, in writing about it, Shaw resorted to a cheap theatrical trick at least as old as Plautus. Goldman may be possessed, but his possession is structured like a mistaken-identity gambit out of The Comedy of Errors or some mystery by Agatha Christie: First the guy appears to be this, then he appears to be that, and then there’s the twist that unmasks him as something else entirely–during the course of a second-act courtroom scene, no less. Believe me, you’ve seen it done before. It’s all so thoroughly conventional, so piddling, so basically dumb–and strangely flimsy, considering the weight of agony it’s supposed to carry.

And yet it’s the agony, oddly enough, that keeps it from collapsing. Shaw overcomes his structural cliches–or explodes them–by stuffing them full of a great and marvelous ferocity. Goldman’s speeches in particular are sputtering, rambling, raging, wordy, funny, flinthard, crazy-sad jeremiads against an infinite and all-encompassing horror. Having been through hell–speaking, indeed, from inside hell–Goldman considers it his duty to describe it. And so he does. And so Shaw lets him, without inhibition, his words finally achieving a quality of prophecy and judgment. Written in 1968, six years after the execution of Eichmann and one year after the Six Day War, Shaw’s script warns the Jews–precociously–of their own potential for cruelty, for oppression, for following monsters and profiting from crimes. The Palestinians are present here, and so is apartheid. “You South African Jewish?” Goldman shouts at a witness during the trial. “Yes,” says the witness. “You live in Johannesburg?” “Yes,” he says again. “Doin’ well?” “Yes. I am doing very well.” “No further questions,” Goldman spits–a soul, finally, of pure anger and pain.

Caught between its cliches and its visions, The Man in the Glass Booth is a stupid, fascinating play. Gary Houston comes close, at times, to conveying some of its fascination. But his strategy of underplaying Goldman denies him the rage he and the role and the play itself absolutely must have if they’re not going to fall to pieces. Thoroughly intelligent but far too reserved, Houston ultimately comes across as a stand-up comedian with a nasty patter.

David Alan Novak offers a creative variation on what’s become his familiar simp role, and Harry Althaus brings an intriguing I don’t know what–old-worldness? otherworldliness? delicacy? melodrama?–to his various parts. But the rest is chaos in this production under Terry McCabe’s direction. Morgan McCabe’s got nothing but a put-on sternness as a sort of swashbuckling inquisitor, Glendon Gabbard’s innocuous as a judge, and Anne Heekin’s just completely lost as a surprise witness at the trial. Rebecca Hamlin’s sets are atrocious: ill-conceived and incredibly sloppy. The costumes by Jeff Kelly and John Nasca were unfinished on opening night, but didn’t look as if they’d be very convincing even after the stitching was done.

If you’re going to see this show you’re going to have to ignore a lot. An awful lot. But then something in the soul of it is worth the trouble.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.