Josef Hechter, who wrote under the pen name Mihail Sebastian, was one of the educated elite in pre-World War II Bucharest—a small, cosmopolitan group, steeped in a culture far more Parisian than Slavic, in which everyone knew everyone else. This closeness turned out to be perplexing, life-threatening, and at last morally defining for Sebastian, who found himself tormented by his own outsiderish feelings; by the Iron Guard, Romania’s homegrown fascist movement; and finally by Hitler’s plans for mass extermination. Like Victor Klemperer, his older and wiser counterpart in Germany, Sebastian took the risk of keeping a diary, noting the daily collapse of buildings and emotional resources while the Holocaust rolled its blood-soaked wave right up to his door—and then miraculously stopped, sparing his life and preserving his journals for posterity.
Playwright David Auburn’s compression provides a stop-motion series of snapshots, following Sebastian’s growth from a cockily ambitious, skirt-chasing young journalist into the harrowed, somber adult who’s discovered himself—and his survival skills—while watching mentors, friends, and lovers betray all of intellectual Europe’s pre-war principles. Though sometimes sketchy in its trip over this familiar ground, it’s a story that can’t be told too often. Stephen Kunken’s performance as Sebastian, directed by Carl Forsman, likewise has its sketchy side, lacking suavity and Europeanness (he might at least learn to pronounce “anti-Semitic” correctly), but it also has a freshness that rejuvenates history’s bitter truths.