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A CurtainUp Review: The Flame Keeperby Les Gutman
One must never rush a story well told.
There are manifold stories arising from the Holocaust, each bearing its own lessons. The first couple of generations of storytellers were immediate and direct, frequently reminding us we must "never forget". It has now fallen on a third generation to keep the flame lit.
But with well over a half century of remove, it is the untold stories by which we are intrigued. In the West End and on Broadway, Michael Frayn's Copenhagen (CurtainUp's reviews linked below) won exuberant praise for its elegant consideration of the enigmatic wartime meeting of the scientists Bohr and Heisenberg. No one knows what was said between them. Now Amos Kamil, an Israeli-American playwright, imagines a meeting between a philosophy professor, Dr. Julius Reiter (Lenny Mandel), and the proprietor of a Berlin cigar shop, Ernst Gruber (Paul Whelihan). The meeting takes place in Gruber's shop, one year after the end of the Second World War. "Everyone has a story," as Gruber says, and lessons as well.
Kamil tells the story quickly (a compact 85 minutes onstage), but he does not rush it. I wish I could say he tells it well. The Flame Keeper does not lack a compelling subject; actually, it's quite astonishing. It raises difficult questions that are no easier to answer now than they would have been then, and they are not the questions one might have anticipated. But Kamil has robbed the story of its intensity by drawing his lines too obviously and, with director Charles Goforth, coloring it with excruciating sentimentality. We thus feel more manipulated than enlightened or enriched.
Mandel is well cast as Dr. Reiter, a Jewish intellectual whose penchant for jabbing and probing tests the shopkeeper's Germanic "veneer of civility". (If Copenhagen had too much physics for some audiences, The Flame Keeper may well have too much philosophy: Spinoza, Descartes, Nietzsche et al.) He telegraphs his animosity as he interrogates Gruber about the circumstances of his coming to own this shop -- which had been owned by a Jew before the Nazi's. Having fled Germany himself, Reiter wants to know how Gruber spent the war, but is met with a brick wall of refusal to discuss the past. Eventually the wall comes tumbling down, and when it does, Reiter must answer for his own actions as well.
If Mandel is stronger before this shift -- he's more convincing as the attacker than the attacked -- Whelihan's performance improves after it. As the punctilious shopkeeper, he appears insufficiently German, a characteristic that is crucial. Once the bubble bursts, he becomes far more believable in his reaction and as he puts Reiter through a series of what seem to be well deserved paces. Overall, it remains a largely unsatisfying portrayal.
More satisfying than both is Kenneth Foy's set, which so fastidiously recreates Gruber's shop, one can practically sense the layers of smoke absorbed in its impressive fixtures. (Some audience members in the front few rows seemed to be absorbing more than a sense of the cigar smoke emitted during the performance. For those who might be bothered, requesting seats at least a half dozen rows back should do the trick.) Jason Kantrowitz's lighting marries well to the design, giving the room a nicely burnished effect while admitting some outside light.
The play's title evinces a somewhat more heavy-handed metaphor than the simple one suggested above. Better that it should manifest itself than be revealed here.
LINKS MENTIONED ABOVE
CurtainUp's review of Copenhagen in London and New York