Even allowing that your play concerns mass murder, it’s rather daring to kill off your main character in the first two minutes. But that’s how Catherine Filloux begins Lemkin’s House, an afterlife-set biography of Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the term genocide. After his fatal heart attack, Lemkin finds himself in a crumbling manse. He attempts to relax with New York Times crosswords and a spot of home repair, but must contend with the Hutus, Tutsis, Bosnians, and Serbs who beset his living room. His mother, gassed in the concentration camps, also appears.
Lemkin had believed that the law he lobbied so tirelessly for, rendering genocide an international crime, would end such bloodshed. He learns, however, that though the U.S. passed his law in 1988, becoming the 98th country to do so, genocide shows little sign of ceasing. Lemkin had thought the law might serve as epitaph for the 50-odd family members he lost in the pogroms and in World War II. He’s saddened to discover what an ineffectual memorial he’s made. “I can see,” he says wryly, “that Lemkin’s law is just another bad Polish joke.”
Catherine Filloux, who has written four plays about the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia, researched her subject impeccably but lent her play a dreamlike tone that offsets any dryness or didacticism. Yet she has afforded it a somewhat lopsided structure—nearly all of those who assail Lemkin are Rwandan, with just a bit of Bosnia tossed in at the end and throwaway mentions of Cambodia and Darfur. She does, nevertheless, script penetrating dialogue and brief, affecting scenes, ably staged by director Jean Randich and the fine cast. Lemkin may despair, “When I was alive I was haunted by the dead. Now I’m dead and I’m haunted by the living.” But this play should haunt, and possibly inspire, much of the audience as well.