Audience: “A Happy End,” a sobering lesson we need to learn

The cast of “A Happy End,” playing through Sept. 16 at Buntport Theater: Top, from left: Mary Cates, James O’Hagan-Murphy. Bottom: Zuzana Stivinova, Kevin Hart, Evan Duggan, Heather Taylor. Photo by Michael Ensminger

 

By John Moore
Sept. 12, 2012

Talkbacks following performances of Iddo Netanyahu’s family drama “A Happy End” have brought spirited response from audience members like Ralph Stern of Denver, to whom the sobering message of play is clear:

“I think it’s important for this play to be presented over and over and over again,” Stern said, “because it’s a lesson that we as Americans, as Jewish Americans, and non-Jewish Americans … we need to learn.”

“A Happy End,” which plays at Buntport Theater through Sept. 16, is the story of a Jewish German couple facing the decision whether to leave Germany in 1932 amid the imminent rise of the Nazi Party. Despite foreboding signs, they can’t know that to stay would almost certainly be to their eventual demise.

“A Happy End” actor Zuzana Stivinova and audience member Ralph Stern. Photo by John Moore.

“This play was the story of my family, so it is a real story for me,” said Stern, whose family arrived in this U.S. in December 1938 — six years after the play is set.

“I went back to Germany in 2005,” Stern added. “It was the first time I had gone back in 68 years. I had to wait that long because if I had walked into Germany earlier and seen a person old enough to have been a Nazi, I would want to walk up to them, grab him by the lapel, shake his head and say, “And what were you doing, you son of a bitch?”

Stern said the play is important primarily because it addresses a question that has lingered and even grown with time and distance. “People don’t understand why more Jews didn’t leave Berlin,” Stern said. “What they don’t understand is the Jews that were living there just could not believe that this was happening to them in this country.”

Much of the talkback conversation following the Sept. 9 performance centered on the natural human tendency to live in blissful ignorance of warning signs of impending change. Playwright Iddo Netanyahu addressed that question himself in this interview.

One audience member added: “Being Jewish, I always wondered what it was in the psychology of people that they couldn’t perceive the danger realistically, or they could deny it. There were so many Jews in Europe who did leave, and there were a lot of people who couldn’t believe it was happening.”

Here are more excerpts from the Sept. 9 talkback conversation, led by myself and lead actress Zuzana Stivinova, a Czechoslovakian now living in New York:

John Moore: Have you ever experienced the “wonderful chaos” the play describes in our present-day world?

Stivinova: I was lucky. I was born in Czechoslovakia during the totalitarian regime, so my parents had to make some touch decisions. But after the Velvet Revolution, thanks to Vaclav Havel and some other very brave people, we are in a free country. So my husband and I can decide to leave, and we can always come back, which is amazing.

Audience member: I think one of the major underpinnings here is the whole concept of choice. That’s something we as human beings hold onto for dear life. It’s a place that we have power. So even if there might be two not very good choices, we still like to know that we are standing strongly in that place of making a choice.

Director Ami Dayan: The playwright placed the story back (in 1932), but he is writing about now. He’s not interested very much in spelling out what the dangers are now, because he wants the play to speak for itself. But in these talkbacks, a lot of people have spoken about gay marriage, civil rights and other issues going on in this country and around the world. But the play talks about morality on an interpersonal level, and how we perceive reality in our own marriages as well. The playwright opens it up to the audience to take it to their own lives, wherever they may be.

Actor James O’Hagan-Murphy (he plays Dieter): There are plenty of us today who may fear the extreme wings of any political party, whether it be the far left, or Tea Partiers. Right now you might say, “Oh, they’re extreme — don’t worry about it. Yes, they’ve got a couple of senators in there, but it’s not a big deal.” That’s like saying, “Well there are only a couple of Nazi Chancellors right now. It’s not a big deal.” Where is that line?

John Moore: And as the play makes clear, it wasn’t like the Nazis suddenly became the most powerful party in Germany. They came into power because they built coalitions. Very dangerous coalitions.

Ralph Stern: I think Iddo wrote it very much as an Israeli Jew, and what Iddo is saying to the Israeli is the necessity to realize that when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says, “I am going to destroy you” — he means it. And when the new president of Egypt (Mohamed Morsi) refuses to come to a meeting in Israel, there’s a statement that’s being made,  and we had better learn to listen to those statements.”

Additional comment from retired Denver theater producer Henry Lowenstein:
“ ‘A Happy End” tells the story of a Jewish physicist and his family as they vacillate in the face of the coming Nazi threat. Should they leave everything behind, or might it all be a passing phase that will soon blow over?

“I was 7 years old in Berlin in 1932 when I heard the very same discussions as many family friends decided to leave Germany. It became my quick lesson in survival and the end of being a child. My mother saw the coming danger, whereas my father, who had been highly decorated for his service as an Army doctor during all four years of World War I, would not believe that his beloved Germany could allow Hitler to rule for any length of time.

“Iddo Netanyahu’s play brilliantly catches the conflicting emotions of the time. Ami Dayan’s direction is eerily reminiscent of Erwin Piscator’s 1920s epic-drama style, and the cast is terrific.”

More on Zuzana Stivinova:
The talkback also was an opportunity for audiences to get to know Stivinova, who is married to a microbiologist and living in New York, where they are raising two boys.

Stivinova played a leading role in former Czech president Vaclav Havel’s final play, “Leaving,” presented at the Czech national theater, and was directed by Milos Forman (director of the films “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Amadeus” and “Hair”) in a jazz opera there called “A Walk Worthwhile.”

Havel  died last year, and “I still haven’t really recovered, because I wasn’t in Prague when it happened,” Stivinova said. But I still have him inside.”

As is typical in European countries, many actors  work in repertory theaters where they perform in, say, six plays for five years or more. “This was the first time I was totally focused on one piece,” Stivinova said of “Leaving.” “Vaclav was there almost every day. He told us many funny stories. He was quoting from “King Lear” and “The Cherry Orchard” and his own plays, because somehow he felt it would be his last play.

“Working with him was amazing. I think I saw the happiest Vaclav Havel because he had been very worried whether people would understand him. But at the first preview,  people were laughing. We went outside after to have one drink, and I still remember his face. In that moment, he was no longer a politician. He was no longer a president. He was back to being a playwright. He was almost like a small boy, he was so happy.”

As for Forman, “he allowed himself to be sentimental in his older age,” Stivinova said.  “The Jazz Opera” is such a funny opera. We were working on it for over six  months, and it was such fun. He he has double twins: He has small twins, and big twins — with different women, which is rare. But his older sons were there working with him, and so he felt protected. He was very tough, but he is always protecting actors. He lives in Connecticut mostly, but he is always preparing something.”

Forman and others of his generation were like many of immigrants who came to America: They didn’t have a return ticket. “They only had a way to get there,” Stivinova. People like (Roman) Polanski and Milos Forman, they didn’t have any relatives. And they couldn’t go back. So they had to survive. And they had to make it to survive.”

That reminded Stern of a famous Hebrew expression. “Going back to the 1940s, when the Israelis were first asked, ‘How could you be such a powerful fighting force? You are so outnumbered.” Their response was always: “No alternative.”

“That is a tremendous boost to make you achieve what you want to achieve, because there is no alternative.”

Contact John Moore at 303-953-9907 or moore433@comcast.net

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“A Happy End”

  • Sept. 1-16 (previews Aug. 30-31)
  • At Buntport Theater, 717 Lipan St., Denver.
  • 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays.
  • Tickets: $25 ($18 Aug. 30-31); seniors and students $15.
  • 720-289-6451 or ahappyend.com