Onward Christian Special Forces


Though the title suggests a meditation on history’s worst atrocities, Adam Rapp’s Trueblinka is essentially a dysfunctional-American-family play, inflated to apocalyptic proportions.

In a dimly lit house somewhere in creepiest flyover country, the brooding and buttoned-up Klieg family operates a ceramic-cross-making business—an extension of their perkily fanatical version of Christianity. Rilthe, the hardened matriarch, supervises her children’s icon-producing (“your work lacks passion”) and berates them militaristically for deviating from her xenophobic, racial-purity-obsessed ideals. But clandestine rebellions brew: Youngest son Avis harbors Michael Jordan posters and secretly plays forbidden basketball (“That game is for the Negro”). At secret midnight meetings in front of the glowing family kiln, daughter Ephesia shares flashy clothes and “books about Jews” with Avis and their silent sister Chick, who is kept in KKK-like hooded sheets and permanently locked away in the attic. Big brother Amos serves as rule enforcer and controls their father, now demented following a mysterious “accident” in the past. When the kindly Mr. Smallwood, a visiting churchware supplier, looks behind friendly appearances, he uncovers the family’s demons, and the household comes apart amid intimations of incest, fascism, devil worship, and miraculous martyrdom.

In the first act, Rapp uses loaded dialogue—uncomfortably funny, until later when it’s not—to play a sly game of innuendo with the many narrative enigmas. He lets the full scope of Rilthe’s sick worldview emerge stealthily, as she slurs against the Puerto Ricans, the “Negroes,” and the homosexuals. At times the characters’ language reveals this sociopathic netherworld with disarming frankness; elsewhere their crypto-poetic flights cover up reality. When Smallwood hears the imprisoned Chick groan, Rilthe explains: “Those darn floorboards. Every fall they get to moaning like a wild hellhound.”

As Trueblinka continues, however, some structural deficiencies become apparent. Having first suggested, and then confirmed, Rilthe and Amos’s vileness, the play hovers a while before the situation develops further. As with his other plays, Rapp often seems more interested in novelistic detail than dramatic action; the result is that his plays feel simultaneously overwritten and underwritten. He lets most scenes go on far too long, until accrued tension disappears in a mist of verbal abstraction. Shortened by a quarter, and with a more direct resolution, the two-and-a-half-hour Trueblinka could hit considerably harder.

Director Simon Hammerstein’s strong production uses only a few set pieces to make the Kliegs’ twisted domicile tangibly resonant. His first-rate cast illuminates the complicated relationships with tremendous emotional clarity—especially Barbara Eda-Young as Rilthe, Andrew Garman as Smallwood, and Gretchen Cleevely as Ephesia.

In plays such as Finer Noble Gases and Faster (currently running at Rattlestick Theater), Rapp has occasionally resorted to oversized dramatic gestures: A pill-gobbling slacker in Finer Noble Gases takes a lengthy, real piss in close proximity to the front row; in Faster an adolescent scam artist exposes himself and masturbates. Such tactics seem like bald-faced attempts to create an event in the absence of a meaningfully sustained narrative, with minimal shock value.

Trueblinka, however, is a less realistic and more moralistic work, and its provocations are less isolated. Here, Rapp courts Nazi imagery as a cohesive social indictment—of the family, of the Far Right, of pathological puritanisms. Among many other allusions, the Kliegs wear industrial uniforms and Rilthe refers to the dwelling (tongue in cheek) as a “camp” and demands conformity and obedience. Intended as chilling metaphors for the way oppressive American norms relate to biblical-sized calamities, these comparisons are successfully unsettling, even though the ironies sometimes feel too easy in the shadow of real-life genocide. More subtle and effective, however, are the religious Passions which may or may not deliver the Kliegs from a hell of their own making. It’s laudable that Rapp doesn’t shy away from difficult subject matter at a time when most new plays risk so little, but his dramas need a more taut balance of lyricism and action. When they find it, domesticity will look combustible indeed.