Set just before and after the Battle of Stalingrad, from July 1942 to 1943, the play centers on nuclear physicist Viktor Shtrum (the charismatic Sergey Kuryshev), who is pushed to "repent" his experiments to the Institute of Nuclear Physics in Moscow. His mother, Anna (the sweet-faced, gentle Tatiana Shestakova), a doctor, was born Jewish. Throughout the play she reads her letter recounting her last days before death in a Nazi camp, serving as Viktor's conscience. The anti-Semitism of the Communists fighting Hitler is just one of the themes Dodin pounds home.
With 27 characters and six settings, there is a great deal of plot, and it doesn't help that the English supertitles are either too few or too many. It's often hard to understand when events are happening. For example, a lovely scene between Genia (Elizaveta Boyarskaya), the beautiful sister of Viktor's wife, Liuda (Elena Solomonova), and Colonel Novikov (Danila Kozlovskiy), set during their first night together, eventually turns out to be a flashback. But that's important, because it informs Genia's guilt over her ex-husband's imprisonment.
Due to all the confusion, the debates about philosophy become oddly riveting. When Major Ershov (Alexey Morozov), imprisoned in the Nazi camp, recounts the story of his family's death through cannibalism after enforced relocation to Siberia, and strict Bolshevik Mostovskoy (Igor Ivanov) replies that the ends still justify the means, it's fascinating. Of course, it has nothing to do with the Shtrums. Similarly, a long scene in which an SS officer (Oleg Dmitriev) points out the similarities between fascism and Communism becomes meaningful when it prompts Mostovskoy to denounce the Soviet labor camps and even Stalin himself.
"Life and Fate" raises worthy questions about ideals versus pragmatism, long-term justice versus short-term survival, and more. Dodin uses many theatrical effects in an attempt to bring them to life, and the versatile ensemble works hard, but the result is more like an airless treatise than a stirring piece of drama.
Presented by Lincoln Center Festival 09
at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, 899 10th Ave., NYC.
July 21–26. Tue., Thu.–Sat., 7 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.(212) 721-6500 or www.lincolncenter.org.