“Canned Goods” turns a spotlight on the start of World War II

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Three people of the cast of Canned Goods are on stage.
Canned Goods (Photo by Lianne Schoenwiesner, Spotlights Photography)
A man in a German army uniform is sitting on a bed talking to another man who is standing.
Canned Goods (Photo by Lianne Schoenwiesner, Spotlights Photography)

It is generally accepted that World War II began with the German invasion of Poland on September 1st, 1939. What is not generally known is the incident the Germans used to justify the invasion. Canned Goods, a play by Erik Kahn making its world premiere with New Jersey’s American Theater Group, examines that incident. It is a taut one-act play which, like most good thrillers, increases the discomfort quotient up until the very end.

It is August 31st, 1939. We are introduced to Franciszek Honiok (Richard Hollis), a farmer of German and Polish background living in Silesia, a region mostly in Poland with a small part in Germany. Honiok finds himself under arrest by German forces under SS Major Alfred Naujocks (Ken King). Honiok has been given no reasons for his arrest and no idea how long he will be held. Jailed with him are two prisoners from Dachau: Kruger, a German thief (Steven Rattazzi), and Birnbaum (Simon Feil), a Jewish professor of religion. 

Naujocks keeps his three prisoners off-balance with erratic mood swings and unsettling semi-answers to their questions. His is a particular style of cruelty delivered with a smile that is sinister in its insincerity. He keeps speaking of an upcoming mission, code named “Grandmother Died”, in which the prisoners will have a role. In speaking with his underling Muller (Dalton Gorden), the prisoners are referred to as “canned goods”.

The play starts out slowly, with the befuddled Honiok not understanding why he, a simple farmer, is in prison. Birnbaum knows the reason for his own imprisonment: his religion. As for Kruger, he sees himself as a loyal German and thus above Birnbaum, and feels his jail term is unjust. As the mission looms closer and tensions build, the three prisoners begin to think they may not survive “Grandmother Died”.

The actors make a fine ensemble under the direction of Charlotte Cohn. Outstanding performances come from Richard Hollis and Simon Feil as Honiok and Birnbaum, two characters who find the inner strength to face their uncertain futures. Ken King is a devilish rogue as Major Naujocks, a smiling, deviously evil, charming man, even though his motives are so hateful. 

Steven Rattazzi’s Kruger is that type of German of the time who went along with the Nazis as “the thing to do” rather than out of any deep allegiance. He has no strong belief system (unlike Birnbaum’s scholarly Judiasm or Honiok’s devout Catholicism) in which he can take refuge as his fears and tensions mount. He is a pitiable character whose wheedling and whining to gain any advantage prevents the audience from truly pitying him.

Scenic designer Yi-Hsuan “Ant” Ma has come up with a prison that, while filling the stage, still gives a feeling of claustrophobia. In this she is helped by the subtle lighting design of Douglas Macur and Robert A.K. Gonyo’s sound design is spot-on..

It’s one thing to look up Honiok and Naujocks and read the account of “Grandmother Died” online. It is quite another to see these people portrayed on stage, their emotional story underscoring the historical facts, and in this Canned Goods succeeds. I have two wishes for this show:  one, to see it performed on a smaller stage, where the sense of being trapped in a small space would be heightened; and two, that its run could be extended. 

Canned Goods is presented by the American Theatre Group at the Sieminski Theater in Basking Ridge May 16th through May 19th.  For more information or to order tickets, go to americantheatergroup.org.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.