PLAY TIME— If you wanted to write a play to honor your father, it mightbe a bit inappropriate to portray him asa scoundrel. But that’s what Henry Jaglom has done in hisnew play “Train to Zakopane,” nowhaving its World Premiere at the EdgemarCenter for the Arts in Santa Monica.
The play starts off as what seems to be a simple love storyin a “strangers-on-a-train” sort of way. But, as my friend pointed out, because I didn’t get it at first, it soonreveals a sinister subplot thatdeals with hate and revenge.
The year is 1928 and Poland, still traumatized by the FirstWorld War, is becoming trepidatiousabout the Bolsheviks, Stalin, and “thatmadman” Hitler. So quite naturally thefour passengerssharing a sleeping compartment on their way to Warsaw fall intoa conversation that soonunderscores their political predilections.
For example, when the otherwise benign priest makes somedisparaging comments about Stalin,someone else reminds him that Stalin hadstudied for the priesthood. “Yes,” thepriest respondsscornfully, “but that was for theRussian OrthodoxChurch, not the Catholic!”
In addition to the priest (gracefully played by StephenHoward), the four travelers include a livelyactress (Cathy Arden), a rathersour nurse (Tanna Frederick), and a well-spoken gentleman fromthe Ukraine(Mike Falkow) who happens to be a Jew and Henry Jaglom’s father.
Almost immediately in the conversation the nurse, Katia,begins making vile anti-Semitic remarks,running through all the stereotypicalprejudices that many Europeans, and especially the Poles,held at thattime. Her comments are delivered withdeep sincerity and make her appear to bequite unpleasant. She warms up quickly, however, to the attentionsof Semyon, the Ukrainiangentleman, and soon begins to flirt and become quitecoquettish.
Semyon, for his part, responds with warm attention, evenwhile berating her for her vociferousanti-Semitism. He doesn’t reveal the fact that he is Jewish,he explains later, because he feelsthat he can make a more credible argumentif she is under the impression that he is gentile.
After a while he has so beguiled her that he is able topersuade her to disembark from the trainwith him for a “getting-to-know-each-other”weekend at the next stop — a posh resort town namedZakopane. Both of them had had unhappy experiences in this town, butthey don’t let that dissuade them.
Eventually he seduces her and she becomes giddy withlove. And he is hoist on his own petard,for he has fallen in love, too. Or isthis just a tale of revenge and spite? For, as Semyon hadremarked earlier,”Everyone lies to get what he wants.”
Jaglom claims that this is a true story, and that he haswritten 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 sheclaimed, shehad been a nurse for a long time. Moreover, she had grown up with three brothers. Wouldn’t Semyon’s circumcision havegiven her a clue to his identity as a Jew?
At any rate, this romantic encounter remained with both ofthem for the rest of their lives, Jaglomsays.
Moreover, the acting alone makes this play worthseeing. Director Gary Imhoff hasorchestrateda credible range of emotions in his cast, most notably in the caseof Tanna Frederick, the uptightnurse, and Jeff Elam, a Jewish doctor who has awonderful scene explaining to Semyon why hehas been living as a gentile forthe past 15 years.
The element in this play that doesn’t work is Chris Stone’sset design. A great deal of effort wasput into the design of the train. It haswheels and a track, and makes you think that it’s supposedto move, but itdoesn’t. Further, a train compartment,even in first class, is usually a tight fit forfour persons, and it would havemade the verbal confrontations a lot more intense if the principalswere alittle cramped and argued face to face instead of declaiming individually tothe audience.
As for the rest of the set design, it’s all gunmetal grayand gloomy. Not a spot of color exceptforsome boring pastel scenery in the background. If this was supposed to depict a lush resortforthe aristocracy, it missed by many kilometers.
“Train to Zakopane” was postponed twice because of technicaldifficulties with the set, but itopened on Nov. 21and isscheduled to run through March 29. There will be a hiatusfrom Dec. 21to Jan. 8,and the theater will also be dark on March 8.
The play will run Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. andSundays at 5. The Edgemar Centerfor the Arts is located at 2437 MainStreet in Santa Monica. Forreservations, call (310) 392-7327or visitwww.edgemarcenter.org.