The 7 train has its hazards: overcrowding; rerouting; station closures; lame liquor ads; the man, cap in hand, who insists on regaling the car with his version of “Lean on Me.” But this particular branch of the IRT is not typically known as a hotbed of Nazi activity. Yet that’s how it appears in Madeleine George’s new play The Zero Hour. Rebecca (Angela Goethals) writes educational texts for seventh-graders. Disturbed by her current project, a kid-friendly history of the Third Reich, she finds her evening commute increasingly troubled by Hitler youth and the occasional storm trooper.
The Zero Hour marks the 10th show produced by 13P, the playwrights collective founded in 2003 under the mildly reproachful banner, “We don’t develop plays, we do them.” The plays that 13P does tend toward a kind of plangent realism, though some writers have opted for mild surrealism. George’s script combines both modes—unsuccessfully. When not avoiding the S.S. or quoting from her Mother Goose Educational Text, Rebecca passes most of the The Zero Hour in the Queens studio she shares with her girlfriend, O (Hannah Cabell), trading martial conflicts for more domestic ones.
George draws parallels between the subject of Rebecca’s work and the circumstances of her life. Rebecca’s denial of her homosexuality (she tells her therapist, “I love her, but I’m not gay. I love sleeping with her, but I’m not gay”) is linked to stories of Jews who masqueraded as Aryan or collaborated with Nazis. Even if you do not hold with Theodor Adorno’s famous dictum that “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric,” you might quail at using the Holocaust as a metaphor for relationship problems. Comparing the violence that Rebecca and O visit upon each other with historical atrocity seems, at best, strained and, at worst, rather tasteless.
Perhaps George and director Adam Greenfield subconsciously sense this. While the sequences in the walk-up are well-crafted and well-staged (aided by set designer Mimi Lien’s intensely credible facsimile of a very small apartment), the Teutonic scenes on the 7 train seem far less assured. Cabell, very able as O and as Rebecca’s therapist, struggles to differentiate among the various Germans and to render the accents. Goethals, precise and emotive in her other interactions, also seems stranded. However, there are some fine details even in these sequences, as when one Nazi, sensing Rebecca’s distress, offers her a tissue, and not just any tissue: “a Puffs Plus with aloe vera lotion.”
As the gentle absurdity of this moment suggests, George can be a funny writer, though this is not a particularly funny play. The play’s best scene is one that seems to emerge from another show altogether—a mordant pas de deux between Rebecca and Doug (a winning Gardiner Comfort), the futures trader who makes the mistake of hitting on her. Their easy, rather acerbic banter illustrates George’s sure hand at scene structure and at engaging dialogue, even if she does initially rely on some very stale pick-up lines. At the top of the scene, the unimaginative Doug says to Rebecca, “OK, I’m sorry, you leave me no choice: What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” Despite the hoariness of the phrase, one is tempted to ask a similar question of George: What’s a nice writer like you doing in a play like this?