The Handwriting On The Wall
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The Handwriting On The Wall

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

Hindsight may be 20-20, but for the Jewish Berliners in Iddo Netanyahu’s Off-Broadway play, “A Happy End,” set just after the fateful 1932 elections that solidified the power of the Third Reich, the decision about whether or not to leave Germany is both irrevocable and monumental. As a Jewish physicist and his wife, Mark Erdmann (Curzon Dobell) and Leah (Carmit Levite), struggle with the prospect of giving up the life that they know in exchange for a safe haven abroad, they are forced to confront their Jewish identity in ways that they had never anticipated. The production, which is currently in previews, runs through March 29 at the Abingdon Theatre Company in Midtown.

Netanyahu, 63, is the younger brother of Israel’s prime minister; another brother, Yonatan, wasa killed in action during the 1976 Entebbe raid. The playwright, who lives in Jerusalem, is a part-time radiologist who reserves much of his time for writing. “A Happy End” was inspired by Susan Stein’s “Etty,” based on the diaries of Etty Hilesum, a Dutch Jewish woman who perished at Auschwitz.

In an interview, Netanyahu told The Jewish Week that his play’s main theme is how the couple’s “upbringing and psychological make-up determine how they perceive their social and political reality. It’s about how the individual’s need to be optimistic clashes with his or her ability to analyze the threats to his or her survival.”

The playwright perceives this as a recurring theme in Jewish history, in which the Jewish people have often, at times of great danger, disregarded the handwriting on the wall. (The playwright’s mother-in-law and her immediate family did, fortunately, leave for Switzerland when the Nazis came to power.) For example, Jews in contemporary France may “see themselves as French to the marrow of their bones, but non-Jews in France don’t necessarily see them that way.”

Previously produced in Tel Aviv, as well as in a number of cities in the Former Soviet Union, “A Happy End” has even been embraced by a Muslim director in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The director told Netanyahu that it is “unbelievable” how the language in the play is “getting more and more [relevant] because of what’s happening” in his own country, where human rights are frequently flouted by the government.

“A Happy End,” Netanyahu said, is like a thriller in which “the murderer is lurking with a gun throughout the whole play, and you don’t know what will happen until the end.”

“A Happy End” runs through March 29 at the June Havoc Theatre, 312 W. 36th St. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 8 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. For tickets, $64, call (866) 811-4111 or visit abingdontheatre.org.

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