Monday, March 30, 2009

Irena's Vow

GRADE: B-

By Dan Gordon. Directed by Michael Parva. Walter Kerr Theatre. (CLOSED)

Moving to Broadway after a hit Off-Broadway run, Dan Gordon's Holocaust-themed play divides critics: A number of reviewers find its true tale of a young Polish woman hiding a dozen Jews from certain death as thoroughly gripping as it is moving, while a chorus of the less enchanted consider it predictable, uninvolving, even taste-challenged. Tovah Feldshuh gets uniformly high marks, and a few gushing valentines, for her lead turn, though few critics are as admiring of the supporting cast.


Backstage A+
(David Sheward) You need to catch Tovah Feldshuh. This multiple Tony nominee and Drama Desk winner gives a tour de force performance and may spark enough excitement to make Irena's Vow the sleeper hit of a crowded season...In a perfect wedding of actor and script, neither Feldshuh nor Gordon stoops to syrupy sentimentality in a straightforward, cleanly paced depiction of complicated events. The horrors of the Holocaust are revealed on Feldshuh's eloquent features as Irena haltingly relives atrocities. Her hesitations before she can describe what she has seen speak louder than any graphic depiction...Though Irena's Vow is physically small by Broadway standards and lasts only 90 minutes, it's a giant of a play featuring an equally giant star performance.

Bloomberg News A
(John Simon) Astounding human heroism and the amazing Tovah Feldshuh triumph in the blend of a powerful true story, suspenseful dramatization and humorous leavening. The result should prove a sure-fire crowd pleaser on Broadway...What a prodigy the actress is, enacting as she does both the old widow Irena Opdyke in America, lecturing to schoolchildren about her exploits, and the young Polish Irena Gut living them, while also making smooth, artful transitions between the two. She throws herself into the two roles brazenly, with brilliantly histrionic technique redolent of an earlier era...Gordon has written an effective thriller, which Michael Parva has cleanly staged on Kevin Judge’s stark set, filled out by Alex Koch’s grimly evocative projections.

Talkin' Broadway A
(Matthew Murray) If there’s been any doubt as to the identity of Broadway’s greatest living star, there won’t be once word spreads about Irena’s Vow...Irena Gut Opdyke was worth cheering for what she did, and Feldshuh - if in an entirely different way - is as well for bringing this unsung woman to sumptuous theatrical life. Explaining exactly what Feldshuh does isn’t easy, because she does everything...Even when she’s required to speechify - which she frequently is - Feldshuh grants the words importance without consciously elevating them to banner headlines. She so taps into Irena’s soul that she brings a freshness to the dramatic clich├ęs that Gordon doesn’t pretend to avoid in his script; as the writing is a combination of hagiography and thesis-cold research, this can’t be easy. But Feldshuh never lectures, scolds, or preaches through her portrayal.

Curtain Up A
(Elyse Sommer) I know I was choked up all over again. As was true on the Off-Broadway production, it's Feldshuh's ability to literally let down her hair and turn from an elderly lecturer to a gutsy young Polish girl and that young woman's heroic story that make this a more memorable and powerful experience than many a more sophisticated script...The flashback structure once again relieves the audience of some of the tension with which this story bristles...Don't wait for the movie. See it live now.

The Hollywood Reporter A-
(Frank Scheck) Overcomes any weariness of the subject matter with an amazing and little-known story so engrossing it makes The Diary of Anne Frank seem tame. Although this drama by Dan Gordon...has some unfortunately clumsy dramaturgy, the sheer power of its narrative and the superb performance by Tovah Feldshuh in the title role well overcome any flaws.

The Daily News B+
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Gripping and gets the tear ducts flooding...It's an amazing story and Gordon...and director Michael Parva tell it in a workmanlike fashion. But there are some very tense moments. Feldshuh ("Golda's Balcony") is dynamic and powerful as an ordinary woman who does an extraordinary thing and found a life in the United States. To lighten the inherent darkness, there are flashes of humor as Irena relates her tale. Most are welcome, though some are played with an almost winking self-awareness that doesn't fit the character.

Associated Press B+
(Michael Kuchwara) Irena's Vow may be melodramatic and occasionally manipulative, but the emotions this stage biography stirs in theatergoers are genuine, a testament to the bravery and tenacity of the woman whose real-life story is being told...There is a lot of territory to cover in this 90-minute drama directed at a lickety-split pace by Michael Parva. Playwright Dan Gordon often resorts to direct address, sacrificing subtlety for exposition in what probably would work better as a movie. In fact, a film is in the works...Feldshuh excels in juggling the woman's harrowing double life: Irena's unshakable commitment to the people she is sheltering from certain death and her duties for the major, a relationship that starts as master-servant and then develops uneasily — and under coercion — into something more.

Lighting & Sound America B+
(David Barbour) Gordon gets the facts of Opdyke's life onstage, but, as many have noted, he hasn't done an elegant job of it. Irena's Vow is a kind of illustrated lecture--a one-woman show with supporting characters--and, at best, it's a crude piece of construction that, in its rush to get the story told in 90 minutes, skimps on some of the most gripping details...You can pick away at the production as much as you like -- but none of it really matters, thanks to Feldshuh's monumental performance, which renders, with almost unbearable force, how Opdyke must have felt when she walked her daily tightrope...It's also true that Feldshuh very occasionally gives in to the script's baser instincts, grabbing at crude gags seemingly planted to prevent the audience from turning away from the story in horror...Michael Parva's crisp, fast-moving direction goes a long way to conveying the constant state of tension under which Irena and her charges must have lived.

Theatermania B+
(David Finkle) Powerful if predictable...While there is a broad streak of the dramatically expected here -- for example, the sexual advances Rugemer eventually makes to Irena -- Gordon's play retains its force because every report comparable to Irena's remarkable vow remains a welcome reminder of how often forces for good prevail over evil. There's also something irresistibly gripping about the succession of chilling sequences where it looks as if the wolf is about to charge through the door and is cleverly diverted. There's much to be said for Michael Parva's sensitive direction of the entire cast, even if the intrepid Feldshuh -- who looks nothing like the blonde and delicate Irena shown on Alex Koch's projections -- stresses the script's comic moments more than necessary. But ultimately, Irena's guts are the thing, and Feldshuh has that part of this heroine's personality down pat.

Variety B
(David Rooney) The conviction of Tovah Feldshuh's transformative performance drives Irena's Vow, but it's the compelling true story of courage and heroism that makes Dan Gordon's by-the-numbers script so moving...The play draws its power more from the nobility of its sentiments and the events it portrays than from the writer's over-explanatory treatment of them. Still, if the audible sobs in the theater at key moments are any indication, audiences may be willing to overlook the clunky dramaturgy...But even if Feldshuh's Irena is the vivid center of an exposition-heavy drama otherwise populated by thinly fleshed-out characters and far too much reported action, this is an engrossing tale laced with suspense, horror and uplifting humanity.

New Yorker B
Although the flaws of this modest production, directed by Michael Parva, are more obvious on the Broadway stage than they were when it was playing to more intimate audiences Off Broadway, the story itself, which is true, remains undiminished...The small, cohesive cast brings Opdyke’s horrifying and sad stories to life, and audience members not put off by its Borscht Belt humor and the occasional wonky accent might find Dan Gordon’s play inspiring.

American Theatre Web B
(Andy Propst) It's certainly a compelling slice of history that playwright Dan Gordon has landed on, and he delivers it sturdily...What elevates the drama is Feldshuh's spirited performance as the spunky, self-effacing and self-sacrificing Irena. There's seemingly nothing that this heroine can't accomplish and Feldshuh manages to make even the most eye-brow raising scrapes credible. At the same time, she communicates the slow spiritual and emotional erosion that Irena suffers during her time with the Major...But strangely, during much of "Vow," directed with a sure-hand by Michael Parva, one experiences the tale on a cerebral, rather than emotional level.

Nytheatre.com C+
(Martin Denton) The message of Irena's Vow is vital and one that we must embrace. How I wish that this play by Dan Gordon lived up more fully to its subject! Alas, the script itself is serviceable and nothing more: Gordon has not seemed able to find a consistent style for this piece, which wavers unsteadily between black black comedy and gripping melodrama and mostly feels like a one-woman play onto which some additional roles have been grafted. Tovah Feldshuh, as committed and oversized a theatrical presence as ever in the role of Irena, is probably at her best in the portions of the show that embrace the solo performance ethos...Michael Parva's direction is fluid.

New York C+
(Stephanie Zacharek) Both insufferable and riveting. [Feldshuh's] skills may be more in line with motivational speaking than they are with acting: She believes so wholeheartedly in what she’s doing that her conviction becomes the star of the show. You don’t have to love her; you may want to pelt her with tomatoes. But you can’t turn away from her...The story is sometimes suspenseful and sometimes moving, as when Irena dissuades her friends from making a choice that plays into despair rather than defying it. Mostly, though, it’s ploddingly earnest. Irena’s Vow works best when it’s funny.

Theater News Online C+
(Jessica Branch) The real story on which the play was based is truly remarkable, riveting, and, yes, uplifting...So why be mean? Because this well-meaning endeavour feels more like melodrama and Irena's startling story deserves a bit better. Director Michael Parva does an admirable job of keeping the action tight and the plot moving quickly, but neither his efforts nor the acting abilities of his talented cast can entirely disguise the moments when the play bogs down in schmaltzy set-pieces, as when Irena agonizes over her feelings about the pregnancy...Feldshuh's performance is feisty, mischievous, and often charming, but she's almost got too much to work with, and her heroic efforts to energize the action end up feeling more like grandstanding.

New York Post C
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) Nobody wants to be the heartless Grinch who points out that a Holocaust drama is flawed. Oh well, here I go then...Feldshuh gives her all, of course, but the constant emphasis on Irena and her quasi-saintly behavior also leeches out conflict and drama. This single-minded focus may be a blessing in disguise, however, as the cast is wildly uneven. As German officers, for instance, Ryan and John Stanisci are so blandly meek as to make you wonder how these Nazis could possibly have conquered half of Europe. "Irena's Vow" essentially is an after-school special -- and I mean this in a good way. It's unfortunate the expression has acquired such negative baggage because this particular show is important, and it is presented in a brisk, accessible and appealing manner. Yet while it deals with real issues, "Irena's Vow" also has real problems.

The New York Times C-
(Charles Isherwood) Theatrical hokum...Susceptible audiences will want to practice their hisses and prime their tear ducts before attending this efficiently manipulative drama covering territory that is rather too frequently exploited for its undeniable emotional force...This history deserves attention and respect...But as compressed into 90 minutes of stage time, Irena’s personal tragedy and inspiring courage are mostly cheapened into suspense-driven melodrama...Ms. Feldshuh gives a canny, effective performance that invites admiration without really asking for it. Petite and trim, she is surprisingly persuasive as a woman just out of her teens, underplaying the pathos and reining in emotionalism when it could easily be splashed to the rafters...Ms. Opdyke’s potentially moving story is handled in such a banal, ham-fisted manner that it sometimes feels like bad fiction.

Time Out NY C-
(Adam Feldman) Inspirational but manipulative...The distortions come from Gordon’s Hollywood-screenwriter impulse to tart up the story, as when he invents a major plot point involving the birth of a baby among the hidden Jews. It doesn’t help that the dialogue is mostly wooden, or that Michael Parva’s production...is not on the level of professionalism we expect on Broadway; Tovah Feldshuh does a whole lot of acting as Irena, some of it good, but many of her costars lack presence. No work of art on this subject should leave you thinking how phony it seemed. To be honest is a duty that Holocaust writers should never forget.

Newsday C-
(Linda Winer) Good intentions are not the same as good theater. Feldshuh has a vital, if studied dynamism as Irena, a Polish Catholic woman who saved 12 Jews by hiding them in the cellar of a Nazi officer's villa. In Dan Gordon's didactic, overly schematic script, Irena begins as an old woman telling her inspirational story in a high-school auditorium. The actress lets down her hair and changes her shoes to portray the feisty Irena and a few other characters. Others in the large cast are essentially used as props, pressing the expected buttons in a project that plays like a Hallmark TV special.

Bergen Record D+
(Robert Feldberg) Irena's Vow...has a powerful, inspiring story to tell. It's a real shame that the telling is so pedestrian...There are moments when tension — the constant fear of discovery, the knife's edge on which the resourceful Irena has to balance — seeps through. But, mostly, the play proceeds flatly on its formulaic way, revealing only the story's surface...Humor — not the rueful kind, but the Hogan's Heroes type — is peppered throughout the evening, undercutting even the slight possibility that the play, slackly directed by Michael Parva, and with an unprepossessing supporting cast, might rise to gripping drama.

USA Today D
(Elysa Gardner) Gordon reduces Opdyke's tale to a clumsy, at times cartoonish, melodrama that largely wastes the talents of leading lady Tovah Feldshuh...Gordon and director Michael Parva, to their credit, help by introducing Irena as an older woman looking back on her experiences, then inject scenes from her past with asides that clearly reflect the more mature Irena's perspective. Unfortunately, they also saddle Feldshuh with attempts at comic relief that play like lines out of a soggy Borscht Belt routine. Recalling how she hid her Jewish friends from visiting Nazi officials by keeping them on separate floors of her boss's villa — "When the Nazis were down, the Jews were up. Jews were down, Nazis were up!" — Irena sounds more like Jackie Mason than a feisty Polish maid. The bad guys, too, are cringe-inducing, and often not for the right reasons.

Wall Street Journal F
(Terry Teachout) Dan Gordon has performed a feat of upside-down alchemy with Irena's Vow: He's taken the true story of a Polish Catholic girl (Tovah Feldshuh) who saved the lives of 11 Jews by hiding them in the cellar of a Nazi major (Thomas Ryan) and turned it into an egregiously sappy piece of what can only be called Holocaust kitsch. Dramaturgically speaking, Irena's Vow suggests an after-school special whose script is salted with punch lines apparently intended to make the unthinkable palatable to matinee crowds...Needless to say, the world cannot be reminded enough that the Holocaust should never be allowed to happen again -- but this is no way to do it.

Backstage A+ 14; Bloomberg News A 13; Talkin' Broadway A 13; Curtain Up A 13; The Hollywood Reporter A- 12; The Daily News B+ 11; Associated Press B+ 11; LS&A B+ 11; Theatermania B+ 11; Variety B 10; NYer B 10; American Theatre Web B 10; NYmag C+ 8; Nytheatre.com C+ 8; Theatre News Online C+ 8; New York Post C 7; The New York Times C- 6; TONY C- 6; ND C- 6; USA Today D 4; Bergen Record D+ 5; WSJ F 1; TOTAL: 198/22= 9 (B-)

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