“The Pianist” lays out a Polish Jewish family’s fate during the Holocaust

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A woman has her hands on a mans shoulders.
The Pianist: George Street Playhouse T Charles Erickson Photography Photograph © T Charles Erickson tcharleserickson.photoshelter.com
The Pianist George Street Playhouse an older woman is sitting next to a younger woman
The Pianist: George Street Playhouse T Charles Erickson Photography Photograph © T Charles Erickson tcharleserickson.photoshelter.com

The George Street Playhouse, located in the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, starts its 50th anniversary season with the drama The Pianist, written and directed by the acclaimed Emily Mann. It is a serious work, highlighting the fortunes of one Jewish family in Warsaw under the Nazi regime in Poland during World War II.

The play focuses on the real-life Szpilman family: composer and concert pianist Wladek (Daniel Donskoy); his parents, a concert violinist (Austin Pendleton) and a piano teacher (Claire Beckman); and his siblings, lawyer Regina (Arielle Goldman), hotheaded activist poet and translator Henryk (Paul Spira), and Halina (Georgia Warner), her mother’s assistant. The Szpilmans led a comfortable life in cosmopolitan Warsaw until the day German armies crossed the border and overrun the nation. Starting with assurances that “all races,” including the Jews, will see no changes in their everyday lives, events quickly spiral downward. There are random acts of violence; requirements for Jews to wear Magen Dovid-adorned armbands in public; financial and occupational restrictions; forced “resettlements” away from the city; and at last, the creation of the Warsaw Ghetto and its liquidation, with most of the city’s Jewish population sent to the notorious extermination camps of Treblinka and Auschwitz.

Wladek breaks the fourth wall to narrate the story of his family and his own experiences trying to survive as a Jew in the devastated city. He is assisted by a cousin left behind by virtue of being in the Jewish Police, by friendly co-workers from his days at Polskie Radio, by members of the Polish and Ghetto Undergrounds, and by a German officer.

Daniel Donskoy’s performance as Wladek Szpilman is extraordinary. He not only embodies the pianist’s slow transformation from acclaimed musician to manual laborer and fugitive, he actually plays his classical pieces during the course of the show. And he just as easily moves between acting the part of Szpilman and narrating his story. Also outstanding among the cast in multiple roles are Robert David Grant as Szpilman’s cousin, a resistance leader, and the German officer, among others; Jordan Lage as various Nazi soldiers, Szpilman’s radio studio chief, and others; and Tina Benko as the studio chief’s wife, a grieving mother, resistance fighters, and others.

A man is sitting in the foreground and a young girl is kneeling on the floor in the background
The Pianist: George Street Playhouse T Charles Erickson Photography Photograph © T Charles Erickson tcharleserickson.photoshelter.com

Mann’s script was difficult at first to settle into. It seemed a little emotionally cold as it switched from an acted-out human tragedy to a non-dramatic recital of events and back again. The direction also seemed to be slightly drained of human emotion, as though the characters, especially the members of the Szpilman family, seemed several times to be portrayed as singular character traits or intellectual positions along the lines of characters in a play by Bernard Shaw.

The set design by Beowulf Boritt, with Japhy Weideman’s lighting designs and projections by S. Katy Tucker, was a bare stage with mostly chairs to suggest the Szpilman apartment and various locations in war-torn Warsaw, and a large gray back wall that cracked to show the breakdown not only in the city’s buildings but in Polish-Jewish society as well. Linda Cho’s costumes, while appropriate to the era and the characters, looked too tidy and unworn as the play progressed. The quality of the sound design by Mark Bennett and Charles Coes was finer than some I’ve heard in other productions in New Jersey, especially maintaining the delicacy of the sound of the pianos, real or imagined, heard throughout the performance.

The Pianist tells an important story from a fast-receding past, one that should never be forgotten. While some scenes were heart-stopping, I wish I could have been more moved by it as a whole. The audience at the performance I attended gave the cast a rousing and well-earned ovation, one I believe audiences who attend The Pianist during its run at George Street Playhouse will continue to do. I found The Pianist to be a near-miss; one should go see it and judge for themselves.

The Pianist is presented by the George Street Playhouse in the Arthur Laurents Theatre within the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center through October 22nd.  For more information or to purchase tickets, go to georgestplayhouse.org or call 732-246-7717.

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.