When Karl Marx pointed out that history always repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce,” he was clearly not talking about Jewish history, in which the second time is often even more tragic than the first. Such, at least, is one of the major lessons of “Dreyfus in Rehearsal,” a 1970s play written by Jean-Claude Grumberg and adapted by Garson Kanin, which is being revived this week at the Beckett Theatre to kick off a yearlong celebration of Kanin’s dramatic works.
Directed by Chad Larabee, “Dreyfus in Rehearsal” follows a group of amateur actors in a Jewish ghetto in Vilna in 1931 as they rehearse a play about Alfred Dreyfus, the artillery officer who was wrongly convicted of treason
in an explosive anti-Semitic scandal in late 19th-century Paris.
As the actors engage in petty rivalries, they question the relevance of the play’s subject matter to their own daily lives. But by the end of the play, as the Third Reich comes to power, they realize that history does indeed replay itself in frightful ways. The production features Broadway veterans Paul Anthony Stewart (Perchik in the recent revival of “Fiddler on the Roof”), Bob Ari (“Frost/Nixon”) and Lori Wilner (“A Catered Affair”).
Kanin, who died in 1999, had a creative hand in some of the greatest plays and films of the 20th century. He is best known for writing, along with his wife, Ruth Gordon, the Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn screwball comedies, “Adam’s Rib” and “Pat and Mike.” He also directed the 1955 Broadway play “The Diary of Anne Frank” and the 1964 Broadway musical, “Funny Girl.” Of the 19 plays that he wrote or adapted, Kanin’s biggest hit was “Born Yesterday,” a 1946 comedy (later made and remade on film) about a tycoon who has his naïve girlfriend educated only to see her foil his efforts to bribe a federal congressman.
“Dreyfus in Rehearsal” premiered on Broadway in 1974 with David Merrick as the lead producer and Kanin as the director. It closed after only three previews and a dozen regular performances, despite an all-star cast that included Gordon along with comic Sam Levene and a 22-year-old actress named Tovah Feldshuh, making her Broadway debut.
Philip Morgaman, who is one of the producers of the yearlong tribute to Kanin, speculated that the original production “didn’t click” because Kanin, like many playwrights, “had trouble topping himself” after his early breakout success. “It’s time to bring Garson’s name back into the New York limelight,” Morgaman declared. “Dreyfus in Rehearsal,” he noted, is “entertaining, funny, moving and touching — a tale of comedy and pathos rooted in the everyday struggles of a people.”
“Dreyfus in Rehearsal” will be performed now through Aug. 7 at the Beckett Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St. Performances are Monday and Tuesday evenings at 7 p.m. and Wednesday through Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., with Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 3 p.m. For tickets, $18, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200.