The Arty Semite

Nukes, Capitalism and Cocktails on the Moon

By Matthew Rovner

  • Print
  • Share Share

On December 3, 1956, “Night of the Auk” landed on Broadway. An audacious work by Arch Oboler, the play was set aboard the first manned spaceship to return from the moon and was written in blank verse. The talent behind the production was stunning. Sidney Lumet directed, Kermit Bloomgarten (“The Diary of Anne Frank”) produced, and the play starred Christopher Plummer, Claude Rains and Dick York.

Oddly, “Night of the Auk” was not the only science-fiction play on Broadway that year; the late Gore Vidal’s sci-fi comedy “Visit to a Small Planet” ran concurrently. But unlike the smash-hit “Planet,” “Auk” did not fly. After Dick York turned down Vidal’s play for Oboler’s an irate Vidal told York “you got on the wrong spaceship, you prick.”

Now, “Night of the Auk” is being revived at the New York Fringe Festival with five performances starting August 10. This new, abbreviated production —shortened from three hours to 75 minutes — marks the first major production of the play in nearly 50 years.

The plot of “Auk” is pretty grim. The first man to walk on the moon is left behind, the expedition’s leader is unhinged, and the ship’s scientist is convinced that mankind is heading for extinction. And that’s just the beginning.

The new production of “Auk” is adapted by Michael Ross Albert, who also stars as Lewis Rohnen, the expedition’s leader, and is directed by Adam Levi. The Arty Semite spoke with Albert and Levi about why they decided to revive such an unlikely play.

Matthew Rovner: “Night of the Auk” was originally written, produced and directed by Jews, and now it’s been adapted and directed by Jews. Did you find any Jewish content in the play?

Michael Albert: The character of Lt. Jan Kephart is probably a German Jew. At least, that’s the story we created for ourselves; he talks about how his father invented the technology behind the spaceship, but lies in an unknown grave. There’s also a reference that his father was liberated, and this was probably a holocaust reference.

How did you come across “Night of the Auk”?

Adam Levi: I was doing a database entry job for Broadway shows. I was working through the 1950s when I got to “N,” and I came across the play. The summary almost made me fall out of my chair laughing: A rocket-ship returning from the moon through interstellar space sends a message to Earth that sparks a global atomic war, which destroys the planet.

Given that “Auk” was a failure in all of its stage incarnations, what made you decide to revive the play?

Albert: Mostly the role of Lewis Rohnen. I said if I never act again, I want to play this part. Reading the script was also a fascinating experience. I couldn’t put it down. It’s this epic space drama. The fact that something like it had taken place and its obscurity were very, very appealing.

Levi: Much of the play’s language is very pretty, the language is what attracted the original actors. Christopher Plummer thought it was one of the most beautiful plays he ever read. But it doesn’t serve the dramatic tension. In Plummer’s biography, he mentions that Bloomgarten unsuccessfully tried to convince Oboler to shorten the play. Now, the Oboler estate has allowed us to edit and adapt it.

What were the challenges in adapting the play and making it relevant?

Albert: It was tough to adapt. Adam and I began looking at the play as a piece of historical kitsch. But, I’ve always tried to steer away from that. For example, there are moments in the original play when the characters are making cocktails in space. That’s so anachronistic in terms of what we ourselves know now about technological advancements. We wanted to walk the line between celebrating his imagination as opposed to making fun of it.

Levi: The play is actually pretty relevant other than there being radiation on the moon and people smoking and drinking in outer space. The play is a morality tale about Capitalism and greed versus the pursuit of truth and science. In that way, the play is probably more relevant today than it was then.

Why did Oboler write the play in blank verse?

Albert: From reading the published play’s introduction and hearing about peoples’ experiences, Oboler thought of the play as being on par with Greek tragedy. So he mimicked it. The characters inhabit a much larger classical reality than they would with the normal modern dialogue that was prevalent in the 1950s. The 1950s was the golden age of American Drama. But, Oboler took things back to an epic scale. I don’t know if the blank verse does a disservice to the play or if it would have been more successful with naturalized dialogue. The heightened language definitely creates a different reality.

Some of the original actors wrote that they had great difficulty with the language of the play. Did you encounter similar problems?

Albert: I have seen some of the actors struggling with the text, to inhabit that world. Recently, in rehearsals, one of the actors playing Bruner has a six line speech, and she said about it “is that just a fancy way of saying: I have a bad feeling about this?” But, Oboler’s writing has a lengthy way of speaking.

You are in touch with Oboler’s family. Did they have any stories related to the play?

Albert: Well, his son Steven used to go for walks in the mountains with his father. And, they could see the testing sites from the view in the mountains. And Oboler would go there almost every day and watch the fallout. He would tell Steven that this is how the world will end.

What challenges did you face in directing the play?

Levi: The biggest challenge was in making the play active. There’s a lot of discussion and description as in a radio play. I think what we have now is an enjoyable show, Arch Oboler would be surprised at how entertaining it is. The surprise ending is eerie. As the characters start to die and as soon as you realize everyone on Earth is dead, it knocks the wind out of you.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Theater, Night of the Auk, New York Fringe Festival, Matthew Rovner, Interviews, Arch Oboler

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.