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In The Accomplices, first-time playwright Bernard Weinraub leads a grim session of Shoah and tell, detailing how American officials abetted the World War II massacre of European Jews. This New Group production opens as Peter Bergson (né Hillel Kook) attempts to gain entry into the U.S. in 1940. He tells the gruff immigration official he’s here “to create an army. A Jewish army. To fight the Germans.” Though Bergson soon abandoned that quixotic endeavor, he founded the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe, lobbying furiously for the creation of a War Refugee Board. He succeeded in 1944, when horribly few Jews remained for saving.
Weinraub’s script follows Bergson (Daniel Sauli) during his U.S. years, as he faces opposition from the government, the media, and even American Jewish leaders, who fear too much outcry will lead to anti-Semitism at home. The play’s heroes are Bergson, fellow activist Samuel Merlin (Andrew Polk), and screenwriter Ben Hecht (Jon Devries). Its chief villains include Rabbi Stephen Wise (David Margulies), who obstructed Bergson’s efforts, and state department official Breckenridge Long (Robert Hogan), who deliberately checked Jewish immigration. A memorandum he authored read, “We could do this by simply advising our consuls to put every obstacle in the way and to require additional evidence and to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.” Even wheelchair-bound FDR (Devries) is implicated. In Weinraub’s script he’s tetchy and ineffectual, prone to vulgarities such as “These sons of bitches are going to be on your ass.”
This dismal chapter of American history certainly warrants staging, but Weinraub, a longtime journalist, isn’t yet at home in this new medium. His script proves stolid and self-serious. Exchanges are often clumsy, as is the play’s exposition. When unable to communicate information dramatically, Bergson frequently turns to the audience to offer a quick history lecture. And while Weinraub details many a sticky ethical situation, he offers no such niceties toward his characters, flat figures who too often serve as mouthpieces for Weinraub’s considerable research.
Nevertheless, Weinraub, the cast, and director Ian Morgan do offer a few effective moments, such as the re-creation of the Ben Hecht–and–Kurt Weill–authored pageant We Will Never Die, which played Madison Square Garden in 1943 and described Nazi atrocities. At the close of each account the actors intone “Remember us.” As a drama, The Accomplices isn’t memorable, but as a lesson in America’s shameful inaction, it may be kept very much in mind.