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Review: Playwright handles heavy subject with touches of dark humour in East of Berlin

Hannah Moscovitch's East of Berlin is worth seeking out at Theatre Inconnu in Victoria
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MJ Connelly as Herman and James Johnson as Rudi in Hannah MoscovitchÂ’s East of Berlin, playing at Theatre Inconnu to May 21. CLAYTON JEVNE

Being a teen is tough enough without having a Nazi criminal for a dad.

So suggests Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch in her 2007 play East of Berlin, now being staged by Theatre Inconnu.

This 90-minute drama with comic touches — worth seeking out — is about a young man living with his German family in Paraquay, a post-war refuge for many Nazis. Although Rudi (James Johnson) is aware his father served in the Second World War, his life implodes when a classmate informs him his father was a doctor who performed horrific experiments on Jews at Auschwitz.

This information is passed along while Rudi dissects beetles in a science class. His friend Hermann (M.J. Connelly) mutters: “That’s what your father did to the Jews.” Hermann explains Rudi’s father infected Jews with typhus and performed operations using almost no anesthesia.

When Rudi confronts his father, he defends himself by saying (1) these people were doomed to certain death anyway, and (2) the experiments contributed to scientific knowledge. An outraged Rudi beats his dad violently enough to leave blood marks on the wallpaper and then — contorted by guilt — flees to Berlin. There he meets Sarah (Melissa Blank), a young Jewish woman. The pair fall in love. All is well until Hermann drops in to helpfully tell Sarah (whose mother was an Auschwitz survivor) what Rudi’s father’s role in the war was.

Moscovitch likes to examine controversial subjects. She’s interested in presenting all sides of a question, especially unpopular ones. For instance, in Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes (which just completed a run at the Belfry Theatre) Moscovitch sympathetically portrays a professor who beds a young female student. In the play such behaviour isn’t condoned yet neither is it shouted down.

Similarly, in East of Berlin the “baddies” are presented with humanistic empathy. Of course we’re disgusted by atrocities committed by the Nazi doctor. But Moscovitch encourages us to understand his dilemma — the man felt he had no choice. And Rudi grudgingly admits his dad was, in some ways, a “good father.” Moscovitch is primarily interested in the guilt experienced by Rudi. Why, she wonders, do we blame offspring for the crimes of their parents? Rudi — poignantly and pathetically — deliberately becomes romantically involved with a Jewish woman in order to redeem himself, to cleanse himself of his father’s sins. Sarah responds with violent distaste upon learning the truth about his father’s past. And yet Rudi, while far from perfect, truly is an innocent — he committed no crime.

The subject matter is, to put it mildly, heavy. Moscovitch leavens the load with outrageous black humour. Rudi jokes his dad read Hitler’s Mein Kampf to him as a child (he didn’t). In an act of defiance Rudi has sex with Hermann in his father’s study with a gold-framed photo Hitler in the background … all this while his dad’s watching.

The role of Rudi is big, difficult and complex. During Wednesday’s preview performance, Johnson, blessed with a confident stage presence, did quite well. That said he needs to dig deeper into the part. For instance Blank, as Sarah, convinces us of the horror her character feels over the Holocaust. Johnson, often exuding a Hugh Grant-like insouciance, was less successful in portraying his character’s pain.

Connelly makes Hermann suitably neurotic and sarcastic while finding the hurt and disappointment at his core. The play is directed deftly by Don Keith, who understands the complex blend of drama and humour. Atmospheric music and lighting cleverly support the action. Clayton Jevne’s set, with a backdrop of chain-link netting suggestive of concentration camps, is powerful. East of Berlin continues at Theatre Inconnu to May 21.

A different side of the Jewish experience is investigated in Men Overboard, a comedy-drama playing at Congregation Emanu-El Synagogue to May 15.

Rich Orloff’s sit-com-style romp is about a precociously brainy adolescent harbouring mixed feelings about his upcoming bar mitzvah. Feisty Abe (Asa O’Connor-Jaeckel) battles with his strict father Robert (Evan Roberts), a lawyer who chooses career over family. Fortunately, the boy is blessed with two nice uncles: Doug (Rudy Smith), a therapist, and Jay (Nicholas Guerreiro), who’s become a Buddhist monk.

Rounding out the cast is Ernie (Alf Small), a senile grandfather who chats with aliens from other planets and Eva (Lorene Cammiade), a Hungarian cantor preparing Abe for his bar matzvah.

Orloff intends Men Overboard as a funny and unflinching look at religion and what it means to become a man. In typically teenage fashion, Abe questions his faith and everything else. Meanwhile, big-hearted but nebbish Uncle Doug discovers his own path to manhood.

Some will enjoy the play’s one-liners; others will find them a poor-man’s Neil Simon. Typically, when Doug says “It’s a Reisling,” Eva counters with: “That would explain the slight bouquet of Nazism.” And Ernie’s ramblings about space creatures, meant to be charming, come off as corny and coy.

On Thursday night Smith impressed as Doug, creating a believably sympathetic yet flawed character. Small, a veteran of Victoria’s community theatre scene, was also strong. Asa O’Connor-Jaeckel had success in capturing Abe’s adolescent angst, although a less unrelentingly intense performance would make for more nuanced and likeable character.

Directed by Kevin McKendrick, Men Overboard continues to May 15.