Lebensraum is not drama; it's not comedy. It's a dream play, a fantasy as removed from reality as Peter Pan, although not as textured as Peter Pan and lacking that story's staying power.
Here's the premise: At the start of the 21st century (which, curiously enough, is right now, even though the play is set in the future) the chancellor of the German republic decides to re-establish a Jewish community in Germany. He extends a sweeping invitation to six million Jews. These understandably wary emigrants are to "be given citizenship and full privileges in this great nation. You will be German." The narrative then follows a half-dozen partakers, who arrive from America, Australia, France and Israel. The tale's vast canvas of characters also includes three generations of Germans, who respond to this abrupt intrusion in varying ways.
Perri Gaffney and Ron Bohmer in Bee-luther-hatchee
Bee-luther-hatchee -- By Thomas Gibbons. Performed by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through March 14 at the Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road. Call 314-968-4925.
Lebensraum -- By Israel Horovitz. Performed by the New Jewish Theatre through March 2 at the Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus. Call 314-442-3283.
This is the kind of fantastic plot that, filled out to 600 pages of purple prose, used to make for intriguing reading in novels by Irving Wallace or Leon Uris. What Horovitz has done is adapt a novel to the stage -- without bothering to first write the novel. His script is merely the bare bones of what, in another genre, might have been a provocative tale.
Lebensraum shares the same kind of imperative that infuses Bee-luther-hatchee. If slavery is the original sin Americans are still trying to expiate, Germans are still living under the stark shadow of the Holocaust. But the two plays could not be more different in approach. Horovitz's saga is part polemic, part melodrama but mostly exposition. The story is a mile wide and an inch deep. For comic relief, it relies on gay Jews and fahrt jokes. The most thought-provoking thing about Lebensraum is to wonder how a play that deals with the most profound event of the twentieth century can be about so little.
Horovitz has chosen to tell his saga with three actors playing more than 40 roles. This virtuoso display of performance-by-accent is intended to dazzle the audience. But the ploy backfires. After the opening night of the current New Jewish Theatre production, audience members were singing the praises of the versatile actors (Josh Bywater, Carrie Hegdahl, Jeremy Sher). But no one was discussing the play.
At intermission, a few folks also were asking about the meaning of the title. Almost as an afterthought, Horovitz introduces the word in the play's final minute, as Lebensraum is rushing to its conclusion. It's German for "living space." Nice as it is to know what a title means, by that point in the evening it didn't much matter.