It seems fitting to review Bernard Weinraub's The Accomplices around the time of Israel's 59th Independence Day. I saw Ian Morgan's impressive New Group production at The Acorn theatre on 42nd Street last Saturday. The actors were uniformly excellent, direction intelligent, sets and costumes true to the 1940s period. Weinraub's play is a serious work about an important subject, and even if were not as well-written as it is, one that merits sober consideration. It is not for everyone, just for sensitive and intelligent audiences who like old-fashioned plays that help them think as well as feel. In a word--highbrow.
It is necessary to note that The Accomplices is a work of metaphorical rather than literal truth. Don't look to the play for an account of what actually happened day-by-day. It is not a documentary--although reminiscent of work by Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller, or the WPA Federal Theatre Project's Living Newspaper. Rather, it reflects a personal re-imagining of history in order to illuminate, explore, and challenge the complacency of an audience. The pacing is slow and deliberate, it takes concentration and attention to understand what is happening on stage--it is a difficult play, intended for intelligent audiences. If you don't get it, then it's not for you. But if you do, you will think about it for a while. It sticks.
The conflicts between characters are symbolic incarnations of forces, such as love, fear, bigotry, assimilation, political expediency, calculation, determination, well-intentioned caution, and regret, that loom bigger than the individuals on stage, bigger than the story itself. For example, Daniel Sauli's Peter Bergson and David Margulies' Rabbi Stephen Wise act not as individuals alone, but as archetypal figures, representing the New Hebrew--the Israeli--in conflict with the Diaspora Jew--in the person of the "Pope" of the American Reform movement.
Bergson, arrived from Palestine, sees America with the eyes of a foreigner, so does not understand Wise. Wise, likewise, does not understand Bergson. What they say to each other on stage, they did not say in real life. But through their actions, they illuminate a Father-Son conflict at the roots of tensions in the relationship between Israel and American Jewry. Zionist leaders like Rabbi Wise helped create the state of Israel. That young Israel pursued a truly independent national course inevitably led to a strained relationship. The conflict between Bergson and Wise is the conflict between the Diaspora and Israel.
This conflict is nested within other sets of dramatic conflicts--between "Our Crowd" members like Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau, Jr. and "street Jews" like speechwriter Samuel Rosenman, between Hollywood representatives like Ben Hecht and Establishment pillars, between Eleanor and Franklin, between the Treasury Department and the State Department. between Congress and the President. It's not just a play about Peter Bergson--it's a play about human nature in times of crisis, as acted out in the American system of government.
In brilliantly acted scenes starring John DeVries as FDR and Robert Hogan as a very Princetonian Breckenridge Long, Weinraub illuminates FDR's Machiavellian genius in holding together a Democratic Party coalition that united Southern racists and union leaders alongside liberal Northerners. In the character of Breckenridge Long, the State Deparment functionary responsible for keeping immigrants out of the USA in the wake of the Depression. When Rosenman finally asks Long to let up and permit more refugees to enter the USA, Long tells Samuel Rosenman that they both work for the same man--FDR.
Even Bergson's relationship with his wife Betty is symbolic of a conflict between political commitment and personal growth--Betty is portrayed as a dancer more interested in Bergson as a man, than in his cause.
Which is to say that The Accomplices is complex and intricate, operating on a series of different levels that require a certain degree of sophistication. It is a subtle work--not The Lion King nor Angels in America.
I must admit a personal interest, in that the author credited my film with stimulating an interest in the subject, and credited me generously in his program notes. Weinraub has gone well beyond what I attempted, and taken his story in a different and interesting direction. In his dramatizations of character and action, he both intensifed and crystallized the underlying personal and philosophical dramas of the conflict in a way that my documentary could not.
And he does it very well. I attended the play with the man who paid for the production of my film, a professor of political science and editor of a journal of international relations--and he was more enthusiastic than I, saying that the depiction of the FDR-Breckenridge Long-Morgenthau relationship was exactlly how political scientists understand presidential decision-making. Perhaps it might be staged at next year's American Political Science Association convention?
In any case, The Accomplices runs in New York until May 5th. You can buy tickets online, here.