Unreachable Eden: theatre review

*published on Feb 13, 2012 in the EDGE

Barbara Kahn can be referred to as an historical playwright. For decades Kahn has penned deeply researched plays often portraying the plight, ascent, or convolutions of Jews, gay activists or other under reported historical figures. Her most recent work“Unreachable Eden” is an extension of an initial work, “The Spring and Fall of Eve Adams” also mounted at the Theater for the New City, where she brings an annual work to the space on the Lower East Side.

Rudy (Robert Gonzales Jr) warns Hella (Gusta Johnson) and Eve Adams (Steph Van Vlack) that they must separate as the Germans invade Paris in 1940 in "Unreachable Eden"
Rudy (Robert Gonzales Jr) warns Hella (Gusta Johnson) and Eve Adams (Steph Van Vlack) that they must separate as the Germans invade Paris in 1940 in “Unreachable Eden”  (Source:Joe Bly)

Eve Adams nee Chava Zloczower, was a Polish, Jewish lesbian who ran a tearoom in Greenwich Village in the late 1920’s. The tearoom held salons featuring poetry, music, and frank sexual discussions where illuminati like Henry and June Miller, poet Maxwell Bodenheim, and others came to mingle and marvel.

Adams was set up in a sting by a homophobic policewoman who alleged that Adams “made unwelcome advances,” which was a charge of “disturbing the peace” and further that Adams disseminated obscene literature, as she offered her book “Lesbian Love” for sale.

These charges unleashed a concatenation of misery and tragedy on Adams. She was deported to Poland, then found her way to Paris where, as an independent bookseller, she encountered Anais Nin, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, and the Millers again, found love and finally fled to Nice, in the south of France in a failed attempt to escape the Nazis. Eve was captured, returned by transport to her native Poland, to Auschwitz and murdered on arrival.

Sometimes historical works can become bogged down in their own wonderful research and this is one strike against “Unreachable Eden”. At a tad over 90 minutes, with an intermission, the piece, comprised of vignettes from Eve’s life, often consisted of her reading what I assume to be actual letters penned while pining to return to America and the hubbub of her beloved Greenwich Village.

Author Kahn is rightfully proud of the access afforded her by the family of Adams and she attributes her work in the program in a full and nearly academic fashion, but this does not make captivating theater. Prolonged readings of letters, transcripts from deportation hearings, or police logs need to be artfully, not just faithfully integrated to be riveting.

And then there is the music. Composed by Arthur Abrams, the music — and I can’t really fathom why this material was set to music — is too simplistic and often upbeat in the way that TV themes are. One number, “I’ll be your Friend” sung by the Henry Miller character in a New York accent that seems as if he is impersonating Woody Allen, could literally be a cut from “Children’s Television Workshop,” and this is serious important historical work.

On occasion, songs from the era were sung and that seemed to lend a more authentic note to the play. If the musical idea was to punctuate this often-tough work with a lighter note and show off the cast’s talents, historical music might be a better choice.

On a positive note, the actors were for the most part wonderful and Steph Van Vlack, who embodies the brave Eve, is brilliant as is her sweetheart Hella, played with great musical chops by Gusta Johnson. The costumes by Carla Grant gave an air of authenticity to the era, which helped create the time on a small stage.

We don’t get to see enough work about women like Eve Adams; I just want her to have a presentation that matches what seemed to be a brilliant, vivacious mind and spirit.

“Unreachable Eden” runs through February 26 at Theater For The New City, 155 1st Avenue. For info or tickets, call 212-254-1109 or visit www.theaterforthenewcity.net

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One response to “Unreachable Eden: theatre review

  1. Agree that the “music” is at odds with the substance in this play, as you describe it.

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