PLAY TIME¬†‚Äî If you wanted to write a play to honor your father, it might¬†be a bit inappropriate to portray him as¬†a scoundrel. But that‚Äôs what Henry Jaglom has done in his¬†new play “Train to Zakopane,” now¬†having its World Premiere at the Edgemar¬†Center for the Arts in Santa Monica.
The play starts off as what seems to be a simple love story¬†in a “strangers-on-a-train” sort of way. But, as my friend pointed out, because I didn‚Äôt get it at first, it soon¬†reveals a sinister subplot that¬†deals with hate and revenge.
The year is 1928 and Poland, still traumatized by the First¬†World War, is becoming trepidatious¬†about the Bolsheviks, Stalin, and “that¬†madman” Hitler. So quite naturally the¬†four passengers¬†sharing a sleeping compartment on their way to Warsaw fall into¬†a conversation that soon¬†underscores their political predilections.
For example, when the otherwise benign priest makes some¬†disparaging comments about Stalin,¬†someone else reminds him that Stalin had¬†studied for the priesthood. “Yes,” the¬†priest responds¬†scornfully, “but that was for the¬†Russian Orthodox¬†Church, not the Catholic!”
In addition to the priest (gracefully played by Stephen¬†Howard), the four travelers include a lively¬†actress (Cathy Arden), a rather¬†sour nurse (Tanna Frederick), and a well-spoken gentleman from¬†the Ukraine¬†(Mike Falkow) who happens to be a Jew and Henry Jaglom‚Äôs father.
Almost immediately in the conversation the nurse, Katia,¬†begins making vile anti-Semitic remarks,¬†running through all the stereotypical¬†prejudices that many Europeans, and especially the Poles,¬†held at that¬†time. Her comments are delivered with¬†deep sincerity and make her appear to be¬†quite unpleasant. She warms up quickly, however, to the attentions¬†of Semyon, the Ukrainian¬†gentleman, and soon begins to flirt and become quite¬†coquettish.
Semyon, for his part, responds with warm attention, even¬†while berating her for her vociferous¬†anti-Semitism. He doesn‚Äôt reveal the fact that he is Jewish,¬†he explains later, because he feels¬†that he can make a more credible argument¬†if she is under the impression that he is gentile.
After a while he has so beguiled her that he is able to¬†persuade her to disembark from the train¬†with him for a “getting-to-know-each-other”¬†weekend at the next stop ‚Äî a posh resort town named¬†Zakopane. Both of them had had unhappy experiences in this town, but¬†they don‚Äôt let that dissuade them.
Eventually he seduces her and she becomes giddy with¬†love. And he is hoist on his own petard,¬†for he has fallen in love, too. Or is¬†this just a tale of revenge and spite? For, as Semyon had¬†remarked earlier,¬†”Everyone lies to get what he wants.”
Jaglom claims that this is a true story, and that he has¬†written it just as his father told it to him. But there are some inconsistencies. For example, even if Katia was a 32-year-old virgin, as she¬†claimed, she¬†had been a nurse for a long time. Moreover, she had grown up with three brothers. Wouldn‚Äôt Semyon‚Äôs circumcision have¬†given her a clue to his identity as a Jew?
At any rate, this romantic encounter remained with both of¬†them for the rest of their lives, Jaglom¬†says.
Moreover, the acting alone makes this play worth¬†seeing. Director Gary Imhoff has¬†orchestrated¬†a credible range of emotions in his cast, most notably in the case¬†of Tanna Frederick, the uptight¬†nurse, and Jeff Elam, a Jewish doctor who has a¬†wonderful scene explaining to Semyon why he¬†has been living as a gentile for¬†the past 15 years.
The element in this play that doesn‚Äôt work is Chris Stone‚Äôs¬†set design. A great deal of effort was¬†put into the design of the train. It has¬†wheels and a track, and makes you think that it‚Äôs supposed¬†to move, but it¬†doesn‚Äôt. Further, a train compartment,¬†even in first class, is usually a tight fit for¬†four persons, and it would have¬†made the verbal confrontations a lot more intense if the principals¬†were a¬†little cramped and argued face to face instead of declaiming individually to¬†the audience.
As for the rest of the set design, it‚Äôs all gunmetal gray¬†and gloomy. Not a spot of color except¬†for¬†some boring pastel scenery in the background. If this was supposed to depict a lush resort¬†for¬†the aristocracy, it missed by many kilometers.
“Train to Zakopane” was postponed twice because of technical¬†difficulties with the set, but it¬†opened on Nov. 21¬†and is¬†scheduled to run through March 29. There will be a hiatus¬†from Dec. 21¬†to Jan. 8,¬†and the theater will also be dark on March 8.
The play will run Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and¬†Sundays at 5. The Edgemar Center¬†for the Arts is located at 2437 Main¬†Street in Santa Monica. For¬†reservations, call (310) 392-7327¬†or visit¬†www.edgemarcenter.org.