The Holocaust and the Broadway musical make such a terrible marriage of subject and form that on some artists their Strindbergian coupling must exert an almost magnetic attraction. Maybe librettist Iris Rainer Dart and co-composers Mike Stoller and Artie Butler, creators of the new musical, The People in the Picture (Roundabout Studio 54), thought they could make the impossible wedlock succeed, for once, by adding a catalytic third element: Poland’s Yiddish-theater tradition. But if that’s a secret ingredient, I’m Isaac Bashevis Singer. The resulting mess is, if anything, even more unhappily muddled than is usual on such occasions.
Donna Murphy, infinitely hardworking, unleashes all the artillery stockpiled in her enchantress department to animate the central role of Raisel Rabinowitz, who spends the krechts-laden evening switching endlessly back and forth from the comic-ingenue star of a raffish 1930s shtetl-touring troupe to a kvetchy 1970s granny laboring to teach her half-goyish granddaughter about wonders like a song-and-dance version of The Dybbuk. Anyone who desperately wants Encores! to revive Molly Picon’s 1959 Off-Broadway triumph, The Kosher Widow, need look no further for a suitable star.
The Roundabout has given Murphy’s fervent efforts plenty of backup: Nicole Parker, forcefully moving, plays Raisel’s alienated, sitcom-writing daughter; the ghosts of Raisel’s vanished fellow troupers are incarnated by a clutch of notables that includes, outstandingly, Christopher Innvar, Lewis J. Stadlen, Joyce Van Patten, and Chip Zien. Their efforts don’t help, because everything in the writing, and in Leonard Foglia’s effortful staging, seems committed to cluttering or confusing effects rather than making them.
Actors constantly drift back and forth, in a blue haze, behind whoever happens to be in the spotlight; world-shaking historical events, like the Nazi invasion of Poland and the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, seem to rate only passing mention. Riccardo Hernandez’s set, a barrage of interlocking, ornate, giant gilt picture frames, suggests nothing except maybe Cubism gone haywire at the Frick. Matters of plot and motive, dumped into the last 20 minutes of an already overlong show, leave behind only puzzlement. Frustratingly, these obviously sincere, well-intentioned writers haven’t been able to do more than evoke innumerable other attempts to deal with matters already so well chronicled that they need dealing with again—pardon the expression—the way a Jewish husband needs an extra mother-in-law.