Hannah Arendt was deadly serious when she coined the term “the banality of evil” to refer to the matter-of-factness with which the Nazis committed genocide. But in the hands of playwright Ken Kaissar, the contemplation of the mass murder of the Jews becomes a springboard for outrageous satire. His play, “A Modest Suggestion,” opens next week in Midtown, and it features Jeff Auer, Bob Greenberg, Ethan Hova, Russell Jordan, Jonathan Marballi and Robert W. Smith.
Directed by Walter J. Hoffman, the 80-minute, intermissionless play begins with four men in drab business suits sitting in a conference room debating whether or not the world would be a better place if all the Jews are exterminated. Its premise is reminiscent of British playwright Peter Barnes’ controversial 1978 work, “Laughter!”; the second half of that play centers on a group of joking bureaucrats shuffling papers and speaking in technical jargon as they place orders for Zyklon B.
Kaissar was born in Ramat Gan, Israel. When he was two years old, his family moved to Indianapolis, where his father worked for the local Board of Jewish Education as a bar and bat mitzvah teacher. The budding writer studied directing at Carnegie Mellon University and, then, after moving to New York, earned a master’s degree in playwriting from Columbia University, where one of his mentors was Christopher Durang.
Kaissar’s play, “The Victims: Or, What Do You Want Me to Do About It?,” was performed last year in a staged reading by 24/6, the innovative Jewish theater company in the East Village that suspends both rehearsals and performances for Shabbat. His new work, the title of which echoes Jonathan Swift’s 18th-century tongue-in-cheek recommendation for cannibalism among the Irish, was produced in a staged reading last year by a Jewish theater company in Baltimore; it was also turned into an independent film directed by Arnon Z. Shorr.
In an interview, Kaissar compared “A Modest Suggestion” with the absurdist plays of Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco, as well as with the ghoulish black humor of Quentin Tarantino’s films. He called the writing of the play an exercise both in soul searching and in what he called “creative misbehavior,” in which he allowed himself to write something that felt “dangerous, taboo — something that ought not to be written.”
However, Kaissar told The Jewish Week the play is ultimately less about anti-Semitism per se than about the complicated nature of Jewish identity. And because the play employs Jewish comedy in what Kaissar called “its set-ups and rhythms,” the putative killers ironically ended up sounding very Jewish themselves.
“This makes the play all the more absurd,” Kaissar noted. “It explores a fact of the universe that just makes no sense, like the Holocaust makes no sense — it asks what level of hatred would drive a country to behave that way.”
“A Modest Suggestion” opens Thursday, May 10 and runs through Sunday, May 27 at The Studio Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd St. Performances are Tuesdays 7p.m., Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m. For tickets, $15, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.