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?
On February 13, 1948, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency announced that film director Sergei Eisenstein, “the son of a Jewish merchant,” was dead at the age of 50. Eisenstein’s father was a prosperous German Jew and his mother Russian Orthodox. Eisenstein grew up highly assimilated, though he was aware of his Jewish heritage. He was friendly with Isaac Babel, and he learned to use Yiddish slang and humor. But Eisenstein’s Judaism had always been marginal to his work as an artist. In his first feature, “Strike,” a serious propaganda film, there is humor, although it is influenced more by Charlie Chaplin than Sholom Aleichem.
Strike has now been restored in a high quality DVD release.The film tells a straightforward tale of a factory strike during Czarist times, and the subsequent annihilation of the strikers by the Czar’s brutal police.
The East German anti-Nazi films “The Murderers Are Among Us,” “The Gleiwitz Case,” “I Was Nineteen,” and “Naked Among Wolves” have all been released on DVD before, but now they are being released together in a box set. Naturally, the juxtaposition of the four films invites comparisons. While “Murderers” and “Gleiwitz” are interesting, “Nineteen” and “Wolves” stand out as truly exceptional. Frustratingly, nearly all of the films are scarred by Soviet ideology.
“The Murderers Are Among Us” (1946) was the first film made in Germany after the war. It was shot on location amid the rubble of Berlin. The plot follows an alcoholic doctor who is haunted by a war crime committed by his former captain, who is now a successful industrialist. The doctor becomes obsessed with killing the war criminal. Watching this film is a bizarre experience, because the doctor was played by actor Ernst Wilhelm Borchert, who had in fact been a Nazi party member. I couldn’t stop thinking about the absurdity: “Wouldn’t the character Borchert is playing hunt down the actual Borchert?”
Comedy, explained Aristotle, has a vague history, because at first no one took it seriously. We cannot know for certain if Aristotle was deadpanning, but his observation would amuse Saul Austerlitz. According to Austerlitz, American film comedy has not been taken seriously, either. In fact, the author quips, it is American film’s “bastard stepchild.” With his latest book “Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy,” Austerlitz gives us a broad survey of the genre, hoping to spark debate.
There were few Jewish comedians in Aristotle’s day, but in American comedy, Austerlitz notes, Jews are “the only minority group overrepresented.” The title of his book is taken from a catch phrase by the gentile comic geniuses Laurel and Hardy, but on the cover of the book, it is Jewish comedians, The Marx Brothers, who are making a mess. For Austerlitz, the Marx Brothers are the embodiment of Jewish humor — “anarchic, absurdist, and ebullient” — existing in the face of a hostile or dismissive power structure.
On October 30, the one-man theatrical adaptation of Benny Barbash’s novel “My First Sony” premiered in Seattle with two performances, the first in Hebrew, and the second in English. Performed by Roy Horovitz, the play revolves around Yotam, a precocious 11-year-old who copes with his crumbling family life by recording every painful event on his Sony tape recorder.
Yotam and his family live in Tel Aviv, but the bittersweet misery that they experience is universal. Yotam’s father, Assaf, is a failed playwright and the sort of man who seduces his friends’ wives and cheats even on his mistresses. He treats Yotam with intense affection — he gives him the eponymous tape recorder — as well as utter disgust. He even destroys his son’s first Sony because Yotam is fat.
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