Northlight Theatre

Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil. –Isaiah 5 : 20. Cited in the program notes for Two.

Chaim Levi looks for affinities between things. An acerbic old Holocaust survivor, a rabbi without a minyan, who supports himself on bitterness and piano lessons, Levi likes to expound–in long, riffing, mystical/satirical lectures–on Jews and Hebrew and how the two of them have come to be tied up together in innumerable knots. How they mirror each other like old married folks. How they read each other’s minds; share each other’s horrors, memories, God. How they’re ultimately one and the same.

Ron Elisha’s looking for affinities, too. But not just the familial sort that occupy Rabbi Levi. Elisha’s play, Two–in which Levi figures–attempts to find affinities where most of us would never concede them. Impossible affinities between antithetical forces. Between criminal and victim, friend and enemy, master and slave, atheist and devotee, Arab and Israeli, Nazi and Jew. Two tries to draw them all up together into some kind of transcendent human One. To show that they’re fundamentally the same.

Which is noble, I suppose. Or at least good-hearted.

Trouble is, Elisha’s methods aren’t quite kosher. He achieves his grand unity not by reconciling distinctions but by refusing to acknowledge them. He brings up epic disparities and then tries to ignore them, patching them over with simpleminded solutions based on cheap theatricks–and even cheaper psychiatricks. From the fascinations of Rabbi Levi’s lectures, Two slides quickly into chaos. It’s intellectually weak, emotionally false, and morally idiotic. Desperate for a synthesis, Elisha ends up calling evil good, and good evil. And the result, as the prophet foretold, is woe.

(All right. Anybody who still wants to see Two had better stop right here, because I’m going to give away the show now.)

It’s spring 1948. Palestine’s about to explode over the issue of Israeli statehood, and Rabbi Levi’s living in a dismal cellar somewhere in Germany, minding his own business. In walks Anna, a young German, recently of Auschwitz. She asks the rabbi to teach her Hebrew, so she can go to Palestine. Levi protests that Hebrew’s not a necessity in Palestine. She offers American dollars, however, and he starts in teaching.

Anna’s accounts of herself shift suspiciously from day to day. Levi finally trips her up and she’s forced to admit she wasn’t a prisoner at Auschwitz, but an SS guard. She distributed chocolates to doomed Jewish children, in order to calm them on their way to the gas chambers.

To his credit, Rabbi Levi punches her out. Knocks her down and bloodies her mouth. And in the process, experiences a cathartic reaction. Consciously repressed memories start to surface. He reminisces over the horrors of the death camps, dwelling in particular on two instances when he saved his own life at another’s expense.

Anna, meanwhile, has some memories of her own. She tells Levi that though her father was an Aryan, her mother was a Jew. She says her father never turned her mother over to the Nazis, but took to using her as a sort of personal slave instead–beating her brutally, exploiting her sexually, forcing her to live apart from the rest of the family. Anna says she herself started to hate her mother for having visited the shame of Jewishness on her. This hatred developed into a generalized, murderous rage, which the Nazis honed and focused and turned to their own ends.

But of course that nightmare’s behind her. All she wants now, she says, is to reconcile herself with her Jewishness, her mother, her self. Hence the move to Palestine.

Levi’s touched. What survivor of the most extensive and systematic genocide in history wouldn’t be touched by the traumas and dreams of one of his tormentors? He and Anna become fond friends. He even helps her keep an eye out for agents of the war crimes tribunal, which is after her.

And I’m about ready to vomit. Can this be believed? If Elisha truly wants to suggest the possibility of a human affinity even between Nazis and Jews, he’s got to acknowledge the cosmic profundity of the crime that separates them. But here he is, instead, explaining that crime away–ignoring and confusing and excusing it with all kinds of mitigating circumstances and special pleadings. With fight choreography and facile psychologizing. Anna’s not responsible for the children she helped murder, Elisha implies. Why? Because her parents didn’t get along. Anna’s paid her debt to the Jews. Why? Because an old rabbi gave her a knuckle sandwich. Anna’s no worse than anybody else. Why? Because Levi let other people die in his place.

It’s appalling. It’s fucked up. It explains nothing. The Nazis set out to annihilate a people, and all but succeeded. Their actions constitute a special category of atrocity. Their crimes reach out for generations. I was born well after the Shoah, I knew none of the victims, and I’ve never set foot in Europe–but I’ll tell you my heart’s broken by the thing. And if my son grows to be a good man, his heart will be broken too. There’s no end to that. And no equivocating. To pretend otherwise is shoddy and wrong.