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The Living Dead

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The Pawnbroker

Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company

Sol Nazerman is one of the walking wounded, shuffling like a haunted man through the streets of New York, not so much a survivor as someone whose slow death has been hideously prolonged. "I am not interested in the future," Nazerman says at one point in Edward Lewis Wallant's The Pawnbroker. The statement is bluntly accurate: there seems to be little possibility of a future for him--he's lived through the Holocaust, but he's lost his wife, his hope, and his faith in humanity.

Now, in 1958, he plies his pawnbroking trade in Harlem, performing by rote in a bleak cagelike structure. Here he encounters lost souls whose lives resemble those of prisoners in a work camp--particularly the prostitutes. Their plights trigger tormented memories of his wife, Ruth, who was used as a sex slave by Nazi soldiers. Fifteen years later, though ostensibly free, Sol remains a slave--to the police, whose protection he requires, and to his boss, the gun-toting Murillio. This shady businessman runs both the pawn trade in Harlem and a brothel--and threatens to have Sol murdered if he tries to get out of the pawnshop racket. A well-meaning solicitor from a neighborhood volunteer organization offers Sol the possibility of friendship or romance, but it seems unlikely he'll have any real respite from his misery. So when Sol's assistant, Jesus Ortiz, plots with another hooligan to rob the pawnshop, we don't even fear much for Sol's safety--we suspect that, after all he's been through, a robbery would be trivial. And even if matters turned violent, it seems Sol's death would come as a relief to him.

This is unrelentingly grim material, mitigated only by Sol's occasional wry observations and by the eccentric characters who do business with him, bringing him their prized possessions--their bronzed baby shoes, their butterfly collections, their musical instruments, their silverware, their junk, all the things they've gotten by legitimate and illegitimate means. Sol likens his role to that of the neighborhood priest--confessions arrive in the guise of stolen merchandise, and the pawnbroker gives absolution in cash. Moreover, Sol's business does as much good to his neighborhood as his faith did for him in the Nazi concentration camps. The phrases "Trust nothing" and "Trust nobody" have become his personal mantras.

Wallant's 1961 novel won the Jewish Book Council Fiction Prize, and after Wallant died, Sidney Lumet adapted it into a chilling black-and-white 1965 film featuring a memorable performance from Rod Steiger as Sol Nazerman. In Patrick Kerwin's stage adaptation for Mary-Arrchie, the role is played by artistic director Richard Cotovsky. Shorn of his signature mane of hair, he seems to have been shorn of some of his energy as well--though the part does require a certain lethargy and world-weariness. Cotovsky's Nazerman is bleary-eyed and cynical, a particularly hopeless version of Willy Loman; the actor's usual enervated, droll, idiosyncratic manner of speech aptly conveys the desolation of Nazerman's worldview--he's an equal-opportunity misanthrope who despises members of all races and religions equally.

Troublingly, though, Cotovsky's enervation seems to have carried over to the rest of the production. The slow pace of Kerwin's staging, particularly in the first act, works well in depicting Nazerman's dreary existence as days drift into days, differentiated only by the people who wander into the pawnshop. But the repetitious structure grows wearying to an audience. Despite the work's subplots--the potential robbery and impossible romance--there's little sense of progression. And though the conclusion hints at some hope for Sol, it's an infinitesimal glimmer. The play remains a lengthy character study of a stuffed man, a hollow man whose insides may never be restored.

Few of the performers in Mary-Arrchie's production are able to make their characters more than two-dimensional sketches. The thugs are of the stock variety, more comical than threatening, and many of the other pawnshop customers are underdeveloped: it seems that during rehearsal their scant time onstage caused them to be overlooked or dealt with hastily. And strangely a lot of the actors, including Cotovsky, speak in a stylized manner that omits contractions ("I do not trust its beauty....Let us stop pretending"), an approach that suggests David Mamet by way of Damon Runyon. But Linh Thanh Pham as Jesus Ortiz shows a genuine internal conflict as he struggles between loyalty to his boss and his own opportunism.

And Kerwin's production really excels in the set and lighting. A talented designer, Kerwin created a wonderful set for the adaptation of another classic 60s flick, The Flight of the Phoenix, that the American Theater Company (then American Blues) produced in 1996. Robert G. Smith designed the set here, but it's equally effective. The gray metallic cage where Nazerman sits for most of the play captures with absolute authenticity the dismal pawnshop world, and its cheerlessness is effectively established by lighting designer Kevin Geiger's use of harsh fluorescents.

The set does have one serious deficiency: the designers have failed to mask the entrances and exits to the stage, so one can sometimes see the actors scurrying around backstage between scenes--and the drama of a flashback to the concentration camps is undercut by a glimpse beforehand of someone in a Nazi uniform wandering around behind the scenes and a camp victim dashing for a costume change. A second "deficiency" is the startling trio of images that begins the show and outshines everything else in it. Behind the cage we see concentration camp victims pressed against one another, straining to get out. A lighting shift transforms the cage into a New York commuter train where passengers jostle one another, waiting impatiently for their stop. Another lighting change and the cage becomes Nazerman's pawnshop. These transformations take only a matter of seconds, but they capture wordlessly and with pinpoint accuracy the nature of Nazerman's plight. Some affecting moments follow this sequence, but nothing approaches its eloquence or power.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Daniel Guidara.

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