How does a Holocaust-themed play land with such emotional impact as Leslie Epstein’s King of the Jews at the HERE Theatre? Based on his novel of the same name, King of the Jews is a searing, eye-opening glimpse of a dark period in world history.
Set in the formerly elegant Astoria Café in 1939 and 1941 Poland, King of the Jews turns the employees and customers into a microcosm of Jewish society, a community being crushed under the boots of the invading Nazis. These trapped Jews emerge as real people. As the eleven p.m. curfew, enforced by Gestapo goons, approaches, they each react in their own way.
Rievesaltes (Dave Shalansky, large yet subtle) owns the café where his voluptuous wife, Phelia (Rachel Botchan, richly emotional) is the in-house singer. Two other men long for Phelia’s affections: Dr. Gotterman (a fierce Richard Topol) and the Nazi functionary, Wohltat (Daniel Oreskes, superbly unctuous).
The denizens of the Astoria include: Schotter, a comedian who calls Hitler “Horowitz” (David Deblinger, playing second-rate excellently); Dorka Kleinweiss, cellist and communist (Erica Spyres, quietly charismatic); Philosoff, an aged, world-weary waiter (John Little, fine); two squabbling rabbis, Martini and Verble (Allen Lewis Rickman and Robert Zukerman, both perfect); Gutfreind, a musician (JP Sarro, fine actor and euphonium player); Schpitalnik, Hungarian pianist (Jonathan Spivey also a great musician and actor); and, finally, Nisel Lipiczany, young boy pursued by the Nazis (Wesley Tiso, particularly fine in his long, heartbreaking eleventh hour monologue).
The sudden, projectile entrance of young Lipiczany is the catalyst that animates King of the Jews. Wohltat enters in pursuit of this young evader of Nazi torture who is hidden by the the café regulars. Wohltat notices Phelia and wants her, but, more importantly, he has come to tell this assemblage of Jews that the Nazis wish to design a Jewish governing council, the Judenrat, to take charge of all things Jewish which, they find out, includes who will live or die.
The second act is a stark reminder of “the way of all flesh” as the Judenrat shows that its members, led by the self-appointed “King of the Jews,” Gotterman, fall victim to the temptations of power and status. Unable to fully comprehend what terrible position the Nazis have put them in, until it is too late, they bicker and fret and are finally forced to face the inevitable when Nisel stands up and tells his shocking story.
Even before this, there is violence, blood, soul-robbing nudity and intramural betrayals, all played out within inches of the audience.
The evocative set by Lauren Helpern puts the audience in the middle of the café, the actors milling about, their emotions and frustrations up close and personal. Zach Blane has lit the set with subtlety and a sense of drama.
Oana Botez has designed period perfect costumes—particularly the gowns worn by Phelia.
Director Alexandra Aron has an eye and ear for the telling detail and for pacing, allowing Epstein’s play to breathe.
By giving King of the Jews the hint of an allegory—that title!—Epstein gets to be both poetic and realistic, an effective combination.
King of the Jews (through November 18, 2023)
HERE Theatre, 145 Sixth Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.HERE.org
Running time: two hours and 45 minutes including one intermission