In the early and mid-20th century, a fledgling theatrical movement known as Theological Drama grappled head-on with the existence of God. The movement died and went to heaven — a fish out of water, it simply hadn‘t the lungs to breathe the oxygen of a secular pop culture. And, more meditative than active, it could not easily swim in commercial waters. It was created by poets who, like Englishman Christopher Fry, wrote their plays in verse — Fry penned witty though somewhat arcane dramas about religion, the most famous being The Lady’s Not for Burning. (He also wrote biblical-era screenplays, including uncredited work on Ben-Hur.) Fry was something of a legend in his time, and though he‘s still with us, only theater historians seem to know of his plays.
Same with Frenchman Paul Claudel, a poet who really wanted to be a priest. He wrote a number of theological plays, also in verse and many about Europe’s discovery of the New World. His Christophe Colomb was put on here a few years back at Stages Theater Center. Its French producers told me that Claudel is the most important dramatist of the last 100 years — a point of view containing a certain French flair for overstatement.
It could be argued that Irishman Samuel Beckett was among the last of the great Theological Dramatists, writing not necessarily in verse but with similar attention to cadences and rhythms of language. The offstage character of Godot, in Beckett‘s Waiting for Godot, has always been construed as a stand-in for God, while the Crucifixion is a running gag in the play. There’s a scene where tramps Vladimir and Estragon huddle together on the dirt wasteland, crouched in tense prayer, before one of them flings his arms to his side and shouts, ”The bastard, he doesn‘t exist!“
Nor, it seems, do plays about the bastard exist either — at least hardly any written after 1960.
All of which makes Murray Mednick’s latest play, Fedunn, being presented as a guest production at the Odyssey Theater, a complete anomaly, picking up where Fry, Claudel and Beckett left off. In fact, Mednick‘s theological drama is so devastatingly powerful and beautiful that we start to feel nothing is more important in this world than theology and language, and that sociology and politics are trivial by comparison.
Fedunn establishes all kinds of gooey, nostalgic expectations by its 1948 Catskills-hotel setting. (Mednick once worked as a waiter in such a place.) The show’s poster depicts a ‘40s holiday post card with the phrase ”Greetings From the Catskills, A Loving Remembrance“ — a ploy no doubt to tantalize L.A.’s Westside Jewish audiences. And though Mednick is clearly obsessed with memory these days (an entire season of his plays put on last year by Padua Playwrights Productions dealt with his past), he has no interest in nostalgia or, here, in putting a single vaudeville routine on the stage.
For Fedunn is a compassionate yet relentlessly unsentimental death watch set during the Jewish time of atonement. A death-camp refugee named Tali (Maia Danziger) lies in bed upstairs, hovering on the brink of consciousness after a stroke, as her family gathers to see her through her final days. She rarely speaks, but when she does, it‘s in prophecies and dreams — suddenly alarmed, screaming out to somebody to stay away from the electric wire; or, in the present tense, defending the local gentile, a Ukrainian kid named Fedunn (Zoltan). A petty thief whom the locals conspire to beat up (for his Aryan features as much as for his thievery), Fedunn delivers milk to the hotel and risks sneaking through the premises just to be with Tali. And the venom with which the Jewish thugs regard Fedunn might even serve as a prophecy of Israeli revenges.
In the second of the play’s three acts, Tali blurts out non-sequitur memories of food and deprivation — ravings about crusts of bread so coveted in the camps. Meanwhile, downstairs in the dining hall, one of the hotel‘s co-owners, Leon (William Bumiller), stuffs his face as the others in the room bristle. Tellingly, Leon is a movie producer, a self-satisfied bachelor decked out in silks and in on the fly from Hollywood. In fact, you won’t see Leon when he‘s not proffering his pearls of wisdom (on, say, how the movies have written American history) or gorging at a time when Jews are supposed to be fasting.
Among Mednick’s collage of tenderly affecting portraits is the crumbling marriage between Eli (the heartbreakingly sensitive Matt Gottlieb) and severe Rosie (Dinah Lenney). Eli was a secular Jew before the Holocaust, but now he earnestly, desperately seeks God through the Cabala — which earns him a series of sarcastic rejoinders from his wife. Her existential query — why didn‘t the British and the Americans bomb the camps when they obviously knew about them? — triggers his witheringly reasoned explanations, before his eyes well with tears: ”You’re right, there‘s no excuse.“
Eli is, in fact, straight out of Chekhov, a bundle of irresolvable questions, of dead-end intellectual excursions, while those around him either smirk or stay respectfully quiet. Fedunn’s structure is similarly Chekhovian, with no central action but, in its place, a delicate and profound poetical vision. The play consists of about seven subplots running on a parallel course — a strained marriage, a man with a dying wife, a fleeting affair, a refugee waiter‘s loneliness, etc. — but never converging into a plot. This defines it as an impressionist play rather than a dramatic one, with every literary and visual image strategically planted and honed. A prominent magazine editor I ran into had seen the play a couple of times and described it as ”a mess with some great lines.“ The same could be said of The Cherry Orchard, which Fedunn resembles in many ways — most strikingly from the breadth of its vista, and its wise, detailed observations of behavior. There are many short scenes and a Borscht Belt musicality to the dialogue, but you won’t find a single rim shot, not one such deflection for the sake of a laugh. And this is what makes the play so ultimately trustworthy and penetrating.
Mitchell Ryan‘s staging of a topflight ensemble is next to flawless. Bari Hochwald as Tali’s visiting niece, Gina, the survivor of a Nazi gang rape, slithers across the stage with both nihilistic intelligence and lingering remnants of sexuality. A forlorn Polish waiter oozes with a grief that actor Travis Michael Holder works to keep contained with a tender dignity. Gary Randall‘s richly detailed tri-locale setting places Tali’s deathbed up on stage left, when Mednick‘s script calls for it to be center stage. One can surmise that Randall and Ryan, by instead placing the dining hall, with all its banter and animation, stage center, tried to focus on the play’s life force rather than its death force, and that perhaps Mednick had a more solemn view in mind. Still, Rand Ryan‘s lighting paints Tali’s death scene (the gathering of the clan, the drinking of tea, the bite of chocolate) with the emotive texture of a Renaissance fresco.
After the play, I left the theater with a quizzical reaction. About halfway to my car, I was suddenly thunderstruck with emotion, as though the play had crept inside my bones. And there it remains.
FEDUNN | By MURRAY MEDNICK | Presented by Judy Arnold Productions at the ODYSSEY THEATER, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. | Through October 13