Rabbi Kroeller's (Bruce Nozick) moral compass shudders into overdrive when memories of the horrors of life in Poland during World War II under Nazi brutality and his equally ruthless involvement with the resistance collide with his survivor's guilt, his belief in a gentle God, and the human instinct to deliver retribution to one's oppressors.
Regular chess games with Judge Martin Levinsky (Stephen Macht), an ambiguous character who switches beliefs midstream, provide intellectual stimulation, but the Rabbi discovers that war and its aftermath are anything but a chess game. A small group of survivors from Hitler's camps—now living in San Francisco, sponsored by the Jewish community—look to the still-grieving Rabbi for counsel when their so-called freedom becomes its own kind of hell. The fiery Sol (Nick Cagle), the timid Mordechi (Evan Arnold), the haunted Gerta (Libby West), and the two seemingly lost siblings, Elisa and Harold Strewliskie (Amanda Troop and Cyrus Alexander), cannot escape their past. But, with the Rabbi's more than passive intervention and at his personal expense, they achieve a questionable level of amorality that works toward relieving the pain.
Playwright Alan Lester Brooks frames an unanswerable moral and ethical dilemma: Is crime ever justified, even if its motivation is excusable? Or does violence beget violence, beget hate, beget the abyss? Despite a promising tenet, vividly elucidated by a uniformly splendid cast, directed with attention to detail by Brantley M. Dunaway, on Thomas S. Giamario's outstanding multilevel set, Brooks' play loses its way in Act 2, turns into unlikely melodrama, then stands on its head and refutes everything that's gone before. The dilemma suddenly becomes a whom-do-you-believe mystery rather than a what-do-you-believe morality play.
There are many calls to action within the play, unfortunately never seen. Most of the stage activity involves chess moves and Rabbi Kroeller's tiresome racing to answer his door to innumerable callers. Additionally, several members of the large cast are AWOL after their one scene, whereas the "villain" never makes an appearance and, until the final scene, we don't have the slightest idea whom they're all plotting against. Brooks certainly has something on his mind, but he needs to show more and say less.
Presented by Judy Arnold Productions at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Jan. 19-Feb. 25. (310) 477-2055. www.odysseytheatre.com.