In the 1950s, when much of the world was suffering from post-war paranoia, a prevaricating bully from Wisconsin, waving sheets of paper, claimed that hundreds of Americans had been, and still were, traitorous Communists and/or spies for the Soviet Union. And then, right in the middle of these accusations, came the trial of the Rosenbergs.
Julius, an electrical engineer, and his wife Ethel, a former actress and singer, were, through a series of betrayals, convicted of passing atomic secrets to the Russians. Julius was found guilty and sentenced to death, which nobody disputed. But the sticking point was Ethel, whose crime was described as “typing up the notes” that enabled the Russians to build their own atomic weapons.
Now, nearly 70 years later, a new play by David Meyers, titled “Rosenberg,” explores the question of whether Ethel, who was sentenced to death along with her husband, deserved such a severe punishment for her participation in this elaborate espionage.
Meyers’ play, presented as a Monday night reading for the Living Room Series of the Blank Theatre, tackles the Rosenberg story from the perspective of the prosecuting lawyer, Sam Goodstein (Josh Odsess-Rubin), who is not convinced that Ethel is a major player in this complicated spy story. He is locked in a secret investigation that he is keeping from everyone, including his wife Judy, (Alexandra Hellquist), who is both a moderate Stepford wife and a well-intentioned nag.
Sam is also under the influence of his “handler”, a nasty colleague from his law office, a creepy character named Robert (John Lacy). Robert is an indiscriminate racist who manages to say something derogatory about every category of human — including Dorothy (Tamika Katon-Donegal), Sam’s African-American assistant.
Eventually, when Sam continues to express his doubts about Ethel’s guilt, Robert unleashes a diatribe that reveals that Sam has been chosen by the other lawyers as a “patsy” to work on this case precisely because he is Jewish. If any of the other lawyers were attached to this case, Robert implies, they might be subjected to a charge of anti-Semitic bigotry. Moreover, Robert continues, if Sam will not abandon his reluctance to condemn Ethel to the electric chair with her husband, he (Sam) will suffer every penalty that the government can impose: the loss of his job and career as well as all his worldly possessions, plus the threat of having his elderly parents deported back to Poland, from which they had emigrated.
Initially appalled by this threat, Sam is left alone to battle with his instincts and conscience — a moral battle that is being replicated in this country to this very day.
“Rosenberg”, directed by Jacob Ortuno, was presented for a single Monday night, when theaters remain dark, to a full house that obviously liked it very much. Especially for the impassioned acting of Josh Odsess-Rubin. When this “reading” gets fine-tuned and proceeds to Broadway, I hope the producers will have the wisdom to keep Josh in the leading role.