This government agent's grilling of a Nazi doctor is tough to watch but never boring
Reviewed by Elizabeth Cobbe, Fri., April 8, 2011
Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd,
Through April 16
Running time: 2 hr., 30 min.
Welcome to Paradise. Sort of.
As the most recent show from a chick & a dude productions opens, we see a man (Tom Green) seated at a table in a barren room. There are sounds of the ocean. It appears he knows about as much as we do (unless we've read the program notes).
Neither he nor the audience is kept waiting long. Someone new enters. He moves with all the efficiency and self-assurance of a government interrogator, which he happens to be. Agent David Dunn (Shanon Weaver) wants some information from his subject, a German gentleman in his later years, and Agent Dunn is very determined to get it. This is 1951, and the incidence of polio is rising fast among American children. Scientists are close to a cure, but they have not yet found it. In desperation – or perhaps arrogance – the American government has now turned to a recent enemy: the German doctors and scientists from the years of World War II.
The German gentleman, Dr. Werhner Halb, was until that very morning living in disguised exile in Argentina with his mistress, reading the morning paper and going for occasional walks in the park. But before he began his life in the Southern Hemisphere, he was a doctor in a concentration camp in Poland, searching for an effective polio vaccine. His subjects were, of course, the prisoners. I will leave it to playwright Dean Poynor to describe in detail just how horribly the prisoners suffered at the hands of Halb and others like him.
Two characters, one room, and a ticking clock: This means that, of course, the interrogator will find himself altered at the hands of his subject just as much as he affects his prisoner. In a way, it's almost unfair for Agent Dunn. Halb brings to this interrogation a psyche already so damaged that there is little the agent can do that has not already been done to him in one form or another. As Halb, Green's quietness is the play's greatest strength. At even the most extreme moments, Halb's fear of Dunn pales in comparison to his fear of his own crimes. Despite the play's physical violence, Halb has already inflicted far worse damage. He never forgets this.
Now, two problems, neither of which has an easy solution: First, the problem of granting a Nazi war criminal (or any war criminal, for that matter) an even slightly sympathetic position. I'm not saying you shouldn't, but it is a tall order to seek understanding for the character of a man who has murdered so vastly. I might even argue that it's imperative that we do so in order to prevent ourselves from causing fresh atrocities, but then my grandfathers fought for the Allies. Others may disagree.
Second, Agent Dunn ... well, he loses control so soon. It seems like he might have found his information without letting his control slip, but we have in recent years witnessed American interrogators unleashing violence on prisoners of war, and some would argue that in those cases it was very unnecessary. The trouble is that the transition from psychological technique to physical violence arrives too quickly in Paradise Key, and the violence is almost but not quite earned.
That said, Poyner has great strengths as a playwright, and under Melissa Livingston's direction, the performance is never boring. It's a tough show to watch at times but one that most audiences will find worthwhile.