THE BROTHER HANCOCK PRODUCTIONS
WHEN Through 11/18: Thu 7:30 PM, Sat 3 and 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM
WHERE Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont
“I was a good father,” said David Greenglass when an interviewer asked him how he wanted to be remembered. “A good husband. A good son. A good brother. Born in a time which tore men’s souls.”
A sweeping statement, grandiose and even pretentious–but one that almost anyone might make. We see ourselves as good people, good children and siblings and parents and citizens. And whether or not we express remorse for mistakes we’ve made and crimes we’ve committed or stubbornly try to justify our actions, we know the feeling of being trapped by conflicting pressures, of wrestling with our conscience and our self-interest.
David Greenglass was Ethel Rosenberg’s brother. His testimony that she was a Soviet spy sent her and her husband, Julius Rosenberg, to the electric chair in 1953. Greenglass later recanted, saying he’d lied on the witness stand–in a case prosecuted by the ruthless Roy Cohn–as part of a deal to obtain immunity for his wife, Ruthie. Greenglass’s story is both extraordinary and universal, the tale of a man who committed ignoble deeds for what he thought were noble reasons, who protected some of the people he loved and destroyed others. It’s also the story of a common man who influenced world history–not a conqueror or statesman, not a great artist or brilliant scientist, just a guy from an ordinary Jewish family on New York’s Lower East Side who stumbled into the jungle of cold war espionage.
In 2003, New York Times reporter Sam Roberts published The Brother: The Untold Story of the Rosenberg Case. A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, it was based on more than 50 hours of interviews Roberts conducted with Greenglass, now 85 and living (under a different name) with his family in New York. Indiana-based director John Hancock (best known for directing the 1973 film Bang the Drum Slowly) has brought Roberts’s book to the stage. The Brother, adapted by Hancock and his wife, writer-actor Dorothy Tristan, stars Steppenwolf member Robert Breuler in one of the best performances I’ve seen him give, richly textured and simultaneously compelling and creepy. His strange, secretive smile both invites and defies understanding of this enigmatic man.
But despite Breuler’s superb portrayal and fine supporting performances from Anthony Tournis and Justine Serino as the Rosenbergs and Bill Bannon as Roberts, the play is meandering and its focus unclear. Though Greenglass is at its center, alternately narrating and enacting his tale in story-theater style, Roberts is also on hand–sometimes narrating, sometimes interrogating, sometimes merely observing skeptically from the sidelines. His presence onstage is alternately illuminating and confusing. Is this a historical study of the Rosenberg case or a meditation on Roberts’s “search for David Greenglass,” with whom the writer had a vexed relationship? Is Greenglass a deluded idealist or a corrupt equivocator? A victim of circumstances or a con artist? A sleazy schemer or a clueless schmendrick? These ultimately unresolved questions enrich the book but encumber the play.
During World War II Greenglass was a young GI assigned as an engineer to the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where scientists were creating the first atomic bomb. A member of the Young Communist League, he was recruited by Julius Rosenberg to pass information on the Manhattan Project to Soviet intelligence agents. The arrest of another Los Alamos spy, physicist Klaus Fuchs, led the FBI to Greenglass, who in turn informed on the Rosenbergs. They were convicted of espionage in 1951 and executed two years later; Greenglass served ten years in prison. In the play, however, the Rosenbergs sometimes challenge Greenglass’s version of events, directly addressing the audience to suggest that (as some believe) they were framed as part of a conspiracy to link Jews to communism.
The Brother merits attention for the timely questions it raises. During the cold war–as in the aftermath of 9/11–America was permeated by a politics of fear, as conservatives sought to exploit national-security concerns to consolidate their power. Certainly Cohn’s disregard for legal ethics (he secretly communicated behind the scenes with Judge Irving Kaufman to secure the death penalty for the Rosenbergs) recalls recent scandals involving the Bush administration’s politicization of the legal system. And the clash of personal and ideological loyalties that led the Rosenbergs to commit treason and Greenglass to betray his family is as old as history.
Were Greenglass and the Rosenbergs justified in their decision to share atomic secrets with Russia? Their goal, Greenglass insists, was not to betray America but to prevent global war: if both the United States and the USSR had the bomb, they believed, neither would use it. Today’schaotic world, with its rogue nations and terrorist networks, might make us long for the good old days of superpowers. “So we have you to thank for 50 years of world peace?” Roberts asks Greenglass, one of the most reviled people in post-World War II America. Greenglass doesn’t answer, but his sly smile teases us into thinking the answer might be yes.