By Adam Feldman
When the actors in a play break character to tell me where a scene takes place or the name of the person who is about to speak, I tend to recoil. So it was at the beginning of Jeffrey Sweet’s The Action Against Sol Schumann, a work of fiction inspired by true events, dressed up, apparently, to feel like docudrama.
As the play proceeded, however, the intensity and significance of the moral issues presented made me less and less aware of, and uncomfortable with, the artifice of the format. Finally, the question that I, as reviewer of Sol Schumann, had to answer was a mirror of the one asked in the play (though not nearly so weighty): is a play what it says or what it does?
What The Action Against Sol Schumann says is, briefly, that judgments about other human beings—about who they really are, about what we’d do in their shoes—are dangerous, scary things. The play tells the story of an old man named Sol Schumann—an observant Orthodox Jew living in Brooklyn; a Holocaust survivor. Sweet’s efficient exposition quickly reveals that Sol has two sons: Aaron, the elder, is a substitute teacher, unmarried, devout, and activist (particularly in Survivors’ organizations and politics); Michael, the younger, is married to a Gentile named Kate and has distanced himself from his cultural and religious roots. They’re a close family nevertheless; and then suddenly their situation is entirely transformed when Sol is accused, by more than one person, of having been a kapo, one of the Jews selected by the Nazis to oversee the slave laborers in the concentration camps. Proceedings are launched by the INS to investigate whether Sol lied about his past when he emigrated to the United States; if this can be proved, Sol faces possible deportation.
Aaron and Michael react as we expect them to, which is to say that Aaron is at first repulsed by what he now knows about his father (though he does come around to helping him); Michael, the outsider, is drawn closer as the rest of the world turns away. (This by-the-numbers plotting is part of what The Action Against Sol Schumann does, so to speak; that’s why my feelings about this piece are so mixed.) The sons enlist the aid of attorney Leah Abelson, who is Aaron’s almost-girlfriend and herself the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, which means that she faces a quandary of her own, explaining to her still-living mother why she is defending Sol. As for Sol himself, he never denies what he did, though he always justifies it in terms of choosing the lesser of two evils to ensure the survival of as many people—himself, obviously, included—as possible.
What’s powerful about this play is the fairly detached way that the myriad troubling and unanswerable questions are posed. Sweet makes us confront very tough issues while offering neither guidance nor solace to help us deal with them. Is Sol culpable? Do the lives he may have saved during the war offset the others he betrayed? Do his subsequent actions matter? Can we understand, let alone judge, such a man? Should other survivors try to? Should our government? Should an old man be deported after forty blameless years in the U.S., simply because he told a lie of omission when he arrived here as a refugee?
What weakens the play, though, is the excessive familiarity of its subjects and themes. From Q.B. VII to Judgment at Nuremberg, Nazi war criminals have had substantial airing in our popular culture; The Action Against Sol Schumann doesn’t add a great deal to the mix. And in terms of family dynamics, I was reminded of All My Sons more than once during The Action; I’m not sure that Sweet ultimately has anything startling or new to say about children who discover that their fathers aren’t who they think they are, either.
But it is in its emotional barrenness—the result of the documentary format that Sweet decided to adopt for this piece—that the play finally sort of fails for me as drama. We never really get inside anybody’s head here; everything that happens always seems to be at the mythic/archetypal level. The evening was, for me, an intellectual exercise—an engaging one, to be sure. But I was never moved by anything on stage.
Which brings me back to my own conundrum, the one I mentioned at the beginning of this review. Do I endorse Sol Schumann or deride it? It turns out that my choice is relatively simple: I tell you simply to see the play for yourself, because the issues it raises are so powerful and so important that they are always worthy of examination.
Amy Feinberg’s matter-of-fact staging takes its cue from Sweet’s script, arraying the actors as observers on stage throughout. Some of the actors do outstanding work, by the way, notably Susan O’Connor as Leah, Douglas Dickerman as Aaron, and Nathan M. White as Michael.