America is adept at whipping itself into frenzy over the “great unknown”. With a penchant for jingoism and a simple minded view of all “isms”, we should use what happened to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as a lesson on mass hysteria. All reason, as well as our self-professed piety and sense of justice, go out the window when “they are gonna get us”. We’ve been through it since Salem, southern lynching, Sacco and Vanzetti. In the Rosenbergs’ time, the Boogie Men were the Commies among us. Today our enemies have multiplied with the dumbing down of education, an infantile Congress, 24-hour cable news, youtube, Facebook et al.
The story of Ethel and Julius should be told now as a parable, since 9/11 rocked us into a new wave of hysteria. This piece doesn’t serve Ethel Rosenberg’s legacy. It is a highly stylized production that may have been tagged avant-garde in the Sixties but comes off dated, forced, and ridiculous today. (Tracy Michailidis) as Ethel Rosenberg recites her lines like she was in a school play, without real emotion to move us.
The ensemble cast in multiple roles overacts, as players do in a break-dramatic-convention piece. Every chorus, aside, silly musical number toots “see how clever we are” at the expense of story. A character played by (Adrienne C. Moore) is part broadcaster, part confidante, part alter ego to Ethel. Ms. Moore tries hard, but the role adds nothing to the narrative. The final musical number with Roy Cohn (Kevin Isola) five days before Ethel’s execution demeans the outrage of her wrongful conviction. (Ari Butler) as Julius Rosenberg is refreshingly low key and noncommittal in contrast to the affectations going on around him. I suspect his inner monologue is “I can’t wait for this job to end.”
Speaking of inner monologues, there is no subtext. The actors talk the history instead of real human dialogue, in a kind of collective diary. At times, Ethel has to break out of a scene to narrate, a sure way to lose any potential emotional momentum. Whether non-traditional casting is in the script or a directorial touch, it goes so far overboard as to diminish the family tragedy. Ethel’s mother, Mrs. Greenglass, played by African-American (Tanesha Gary) is not so bothersome, even with her comical Yiddish. But Ethel’s two young sons portrayed by adult actors spouting kid-speak is a distraction instead of shining light on their loss, two young boys thrown into a maelstrom they couldn’t possibly understand.
A would-be opera singer, Ethel played Saint Joan in high school. She clings to that role with an image of her own martyrdom. With perhaps misplaced loyalty in not denouncing friends to HUAC, she refuses to save her own skin for the sake of her boys. Regardless of more recent evidence revealing Julius did sell secrets to the Soviets – and proving Ethel’s innocence – I suggest the Meeropol family find a first rate screenwriter to tell their tale. For it is above all an American family story.
Ethel Sings, The Unsung Song of Ethel Rosenberg
WITH: Tracy Michailidis (Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg), Ari Butler (Julius Rosenberg), David Fierro, Tanesha Gary, Sheria Irving, Kevin Isola, Kenneth Lee, Joel Leffert, Adrienne C. Moore, Serge Thony.
By Joan Beber; directed by Will Pomerantz; sets by John McDermott; costumes by Whitney Locher; lighting by Joyce Liao; sound by Drew Levy; casting by McCorkle Casting Ltd, Pat McCorkle, CSA; production manager, BD White; movement director, Brendan McMahon; dialect designer, Amy Stoller; production stage manager, Abigail Strange; press representative, David Gersten & Associates; advertising marketing, The Pekoe Group. Presented by Undercover Productions and Perry Street Theatricals. At Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, between 9th and 10th Avenues. Telecharge.com or call (212) 239-6200. Through July 13. Running time: 2 hours with intermission.