Tim Blake Nelson's harrowing play is based on the memoirs of Dr. Miklos Nyiszli, a Hungarian Jew and a Holocaust survivor who sacrificed his integrity to save his family from extinction. A highly educated scientist, incarcerated at Auschwitz and portrayed here by Alan Avenel, Nyiszli was granted the dubious honor of being chosen to work on the monster Josef Mengele's blood-chilling experiments. As long as the good doctor cooperated with his jailers, his life, and his wife's and daughter's, would be spared — a promise easily made and not always kept.
The terrifying real-life story of Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz, bartering for a few more months of life by carrying out the dirty work of Hitler's "final solution," makes the heart bleed. The Sonderkommandos were squads of Jewish prisoners who were selected to help exterminate thousands of fellow Jews by processing them through the egregious system and into the incinerators. Favors were granted to these squads — not dignity or their lives but access to the goods stolen from the Jews who were on their way to the gas chambers, goods they could barter for cigarettes and liquor.
In Nelson's powerful document, it is 1944 and the Germans sense their power dwindling. Sonderkommandos Hoffman (Scott Jay), Rosenthal (David Mersault), Schlermer (Ian Gregory), Moll (Blas Kisic), and Abramawics (Matt Lowe), all Hungarian Jews, aware they are as expendable as any other prisoners, are planning a revolt. When the men discover a young girl (Ryanne Plaisance) still alive at the bottom of a pile of gassed bodies, she becomes for them either a symbol of possible redemption or a liability they can ill afford if they decide to take her with them in their planned escape.
Superbly realistic, tough-minded performances by all, under Brian C. Weed's sharp, edgy direction, overcome the initially choppy, Mamet-like dialogue. In one of the few false notes, Bob Jesser, as Muhsfeldt, the Nazi in charge, although authentically intimidating in stature and performance, plays with a comedic German accent, which makes a distinctly unfunny character momentarily amusing. Ventura Alvarez's lighting works well on David Offner's stark set. Hopefully, the uncredited sound — an intense vibration, highly oppressive on opening night — has been tempered somewhat since.
If the question "Do we need to see plays like this?" still remains, the answer always is: We must.
Presented by Because It's There Theatre Collaboration at Deaf West Theatre, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. (Except Sun. 2 p.m. Oct. 1.) Sep. 29-Nov. 5. (800) 838-3006.