‘Sol Schulmann’ at 14th St Y


By Davida Singer

“The Action Against Sol Schulmann,” by Jeffrey Sweet, which has already won an American Theater Critics Award, is based on the actual case against Brooklynite Jacob Tannenbaum, who was charged in 1985 with having been a Kapo during World War II.

“It was the only case about a Jew possibly being deported for war crimes during the Holocaust,” says Sweet, who began the project at Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago, where he’s been a resident writer for twenty-six years. His friend, David Van Bieing, had a story on the Tannenbaum case in the Washington Post, which caught Sweet’s attention.

“What interested me most,” he recalls, “was the effect on the Tannenbaum family. I totally fictionalized it, so now it’s really about the two sons, but I did do a lot of research on the case as well.”

Sweet is a seasoned, award-winning writer for both TV and theater, and his credits include the TV movie “Pack of Lies” for Hallmark Hall of Fame in 1987, a musical with Melissa Manchester, “I Sent A Letter To My Love,” and a book about his early heroes, the comedians of Chicago’s Second City.

“This piece is very much influenced by their techniques,” explains Sweet, who teaches playwriting at Purchase. “It assumes the audience will put things together quickly, and uses a bare bones effect with a minimum of props. I like to write about people who have an unshakable philosophy, who are in situations where that is challenged. I always start from the character, and then discover what and why as I go. ‘The Action Against Sol Schulmann’ is the closest thing I’ve done to an Arthur Miller play. It deals with adult children looking a father they’d loved, and reevaluating their lives based on what they’ve learned about him.”

The play’s leading character is a man who is active in Jewish-American issues in 1985, and who has a sense of mission because his father is a Holocaust survivor, and, he believes, “a pure victim.” But someone recognizes Sol as a former Kapo, and charges are brought against him.

“The son is in his 30’s,” Sweet says, “and this throws his life into upheaval. It all centers around him and his brother, and their differing views. One is politically engaged, and the other embraces much less in the way of Jewish heritage.”

“The Action Against Sol Schulmann” is a highly personal work for its half-Jewish author, and is directed by Amy Feinberg, who was also involved in the premiere run in Atlanta.

According to Sweet, this is an ensemble piece rather than a “conventional play,” where the cast of 11 often works as joint narrator changing scenes, shifting back and forth, “a little like in ‘Nicholas Nickleby.’”

“This is a play using the Hypothetical Theater’s resident company,” he notes, “so most parts are played by them. It’s one damn scene after another — 26 in all — and moves swiftly, relentlessly forward. We use a unit set which is adaptable, with a bit of Schubert’s music woven in. Its essence relates to how much we make our own choices versus how much the family dictates to us. None of us can ignore circumstances of birth, but there are always choices about the hand you’ve been dealt.”

Writing for such a large cast — one of the largest he’s ever worked with — has been a challenge for the author, because of the difficulty in getting the necessary resources for large productions, and in transferring such productions to regional theaters.

“Hopefully, people will continue to love this show,” says Sweet. “Mostly I want them to say, ‘What a story.’ I’m primarily a storyteller, and this is really a 90- minute storytelling machine. I’ve got no stinger for morality here, nothing to whack you over the head. Rather than Aesop’s Fables, it’s more like Grimm’s Fairy Tales — they’re much more pleasurable. I’m in the business of trying to delight, and basically want to make time evaporate so at the end they say, “Wow, that went by fast!”