Saturday, June 7, 2014

Ethel Sings: The Unsung Song of Ethel Rosenberg at Theatre Row's Beckett Theatre

L-R: Ari Butler, Adrienne C. Moore, and Tracy Michailidis in ETHEL SINGS: THE UNSUNG STORY OF ETHEL ROSENBERG.
Ethel Greenglass was born in 1915 to Russian-Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side of New York.  A precocious, talented and intelligent girl, she graduated from high school when she was only 15 years old and aspired to a singing and acting career.  That, however, was not to be.  Instead, she became a clerk and a labor activist, joined the Young Communist League and the American Communist Party, met and married Julius Rosenberg, and bore him two children, Michael and Robert.  Ultimately, she became embroiled in a conspiracy led by her husband to transmit atomic bomb secrets to the Soviet Union; she was tried, convicted of espionage, and sentenced to death; and she was executed in 1953 – becoming, at that time, only the second woman in US history ever to be executed by the Federal Government. 

There is no doubt that Julius Rosenberg and his other co-conspirators – including David Greenglass (Ethel’s younger brother), Ruth Greenglass (David’s wife), Harry Gold, Klaus Fuchs, and Morton Sobell – were all guilty of espionage, but there still are those who question whether Ethel herself was really involved in any significant way.  And, whether or not she was, there still are those who continue to deny that her and/or Julius’s actions rose to the level of a capital offense.  Such questions, revolving around Ethel’s role in the atomic spy ring and the applicability of the death penalty in any case, are certainly legitimate.  They haunt us to this day and provide the raw material from which a truly fine play may one day be written.

But, sad to say, Ethel Sings: The Unsung Song of Ethel Rosenberg, written by Joan Beber and currently being staged by Undercover Productions and Perry Street Theatricals at Theatre Row’s Beckett Theatre on West 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan, is not that play.

The problem with Ethel Sings is that its playwright and director are both so eager to be politically correct in every possible way that they simply content themselves with the creation and demolition of straw men in support of their pre-conceived notions, without ever addressing the deeper and more serious issues that the case presents.  In so doing, they present a biased and distorted view of the Rosenbergs’ story, trivializing the magnitude of their crime, alluding to unsubstantiated anti-Semitism as a factor in their convictions, and downplaying the extent of their treason.

In a program note, Will Pomerantz, the play’s director, states:

“I continued to be struck by how current the issues raised by the play remain.  The idea of guilt by association- something seemingly so discredited after the reign of terror that was McCarthyism – came roaring back post 9-11.The profligate use of incarceration, including the overuse of solitary confinement, and the overrepresentation of communities of color in our prison system, continue.  Although it is commonly accepted that our country has entered an era of wealth disparity the heights of which have not been seen for 100 years, we have also been living for many, many years with systemic inequality of justice….

“The Rosenbergs were liberals, Jews, labor activists, and communist sympathizers in an era of virulent anti-Communism and anti-Semitism.  The trial became a show trial for the rise of McCarthyism, and although the actual evidence against them was inconclusive at best, they were found guilty….”

Thus, in one fell swoop, Pomerantz pushes virtually every liberal hot button including guilt by association, racism, wealth inequality, anti-Semitism, the justice system, and the labor movement.  But the fact remains that the Rosenbergs were not convicted of espionage on the basis of “guilt by association” but on the basis of clear evidence that they had transmitted secrets relating to the development of the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union.  And that evidence, at least in Julius’ case, was not “inconclusive at best” but was overwhelmingly damning. 

Moreover, the Rosenbergs were not mere “communist sympathizers” but were card-carrying members of the Communist Party.  They may have encountered anti-Semitism in their lives but that was not the basis of their convictions.  (Indeed, it is an uncomfortable fact that the judge at their trial, Irving Kaufman, was a Jew as was the leader of the prosecution team, Irving Saypol, as was his associate, Roy Cohn.)  The percentage of blacks and whites in prison, the labor movement, and wealth inequality all may be issues of political interest but the fact remains that none of them had anything at all to do with the Rosenbergs’ having been charged with espionage.  And yet this play – really more of a polemic than a play – just expounds the sort of liberal talking points we hear again and again and then contends that since they are all obviously so politically correct, they must have something to do with the Rosenbergs as well.

As if to underscore just how baldly this Ethel Sings distorts the Rosenbergs’ story, its producers have availed themselves of color-blind casting to the worst possible end.  To be sure, the role of Ethel Rosenberg has been given to Tracy Michailidis, a white woman and a fine singer who plays her difficult part with great sensitivity.  And Ari Butler, who is also white, portrays the role of Julius Rosenberg with skill and passion.  But Tanesha Gary, a black woman, has been cast as Ethel’s immigrant Russian-Jewish mother; Serge Thony, a black man, has been cast as her older son, Michael; Kenneth Lee, an Asian man, has been cast as her younger son, Robby; and Sheria Irving, a black woman, has been cast as her sister-in-law, Ruth.  The point of such casting, I imagine, is to emphasize the universality of man and the superficiality of racial differences but here these casting decisions turn out to have been simply silly at best and distracting and annoying at worst.  Indeed, when Ms Gary attempts to express her feelings by utilizing stereotypical Jewish immigrant mannerisms and by speaking in a mixture of broken English and Yiddish, she only succeeds in offending both Jews and blacks simultaneously.

In addition to Ms Michailidis and Mr. Butler, to whom I have already called attention for their exemplary performances, I should like to commend Kevin Isola for his portrayal of the admittedly despicable Roy Cohn.  And I should like to single out  Adrienne C. Moore for her portrayal of Loraine, the transcendent figure introduced to pull the entire play together; I thought she had one of the most difficult roles and managed it superbly.

And as far as my expression of disappointment in the roles played by Ms Gary, Mr. Thony, Mr. Lee and Ms Irving goes, that ought not necessarily be construed as an indictment of their acting talents but rather of the degree to which they have been totally miscast.  In more appropriate roles, they well may have turned in strong performances.  Unfortunately, there’s just no way of knowing.

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