August 22, 2019

Theater: The answer isn’t black and white

Scott Jay and Brian Weed, star/producer and director, respectively, of “The Grey Zone,” now playing at the Deaf West Theater, initially had reservations about staging a play about Auschwitz’s Sonderkommando, Jews who cleaned the gas chambers and crematoria in exchange for a few extra months of life.

“We thought, ‘It’s about the Holocaust. Who wants to go and be depressed for two hours?'” Jay said of the Tim Blake Nelson play that later became a movie starring Harvey Keitel and Mira Sorvino.

But Jay and Weed were drawn to the power of the tale, which runs counter to the bittersweet and inspirational Holocaust dramas we have come to expect from Hollywood, including the self-important and religious quality of “Schindler’s List.”

“The Grey Zone” seems much truer to the moral ambiguities of the Shoah; as Weed said, “I didn’t feel I was reading a play about Jews. I felt I was reading a play about humans.”

Its protagonists, ash-covered stewards of the crematorium, speak in the foul-mouthed staccato of David Mamet, interrupting one another, barking out truncated thoughts, cursing like it’s second nature.

It is as if the characters are speaking in code, because they do not want to reveal too much, even in the presence of a mute girl who has miraculously survived the gassing. The abbreviated, desperate pattern to the speech creates a tension in the play, leaving us wondering about the internal demons these men must be hiding.

We can hear those demons or ghosts in Ben Holbrook’s eerie musical score.

Mastered digitally with simulated oboes and violins, the composition produces a bubbling sound that has the effect of making us feel that we are in a sinking submarine, drowning, yet still alive.

The music, which is supposed to represent the ambient noises of a factory, also suggests the rumble of distant tanks approaching to liberate the Jews.

But will those tanks come in time? And will the Sonderkommandos want to live even if they are liberated?

Jay and Weed, who met as actors at A Noise Within, the Glendale repertory theater, believe that there is a contemporary resonance to this play. Not that they are claiming that Americans face a moral conundrum of the level of the Sonderkommandos, but, as Weed said, “We’re stuck in a time that we don’t know if what we’re doing is right.”

“The Grey Zone” plays through Nov. 5 at Deaf West Theater, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hollywood.