Those dreaded holiday family gatherings get yet another coat of paint in “Seder,” Sarah Gancher’s drama now spinning its wheels in its world premiere engagement at Hartford Stage. Instead of Thanksgiving arguments with Uncle Lester and Aunt Liz, we have Passover quarrels between Hungarian mother Erzsike and her estranged daughter, Judit. Loud disagreements over politics and upbringing explode into the smashed memories of characters we simply don’t care about.
Based on a true story, the play doesn’t get much beyond “you did / I didn’t.” Hinting at using the eponymous Passover meal to probe into a people’s rebelliousness and determination to overturn oppressors and escape from captivity, the work devolves into a repetitious domestic imbroglio.
The setting is Budapest, the time is 2002, “thirteen years after the destruction of the Berlin Wall,” according to the program. Erzsike, having worked for the Soviets when they occupied Hungary, finds her picture on the Wall of Murderers in the newly created House of Terror. The latter is an actual Budapest museum on the former site of AVO, the Gestapo-like secret police. Describing itself as “a monument to the memory of those held captive, tortured and killed in this building,” it recreates those terrifying years.
Protesting that she was a lowly secretary who actually tried to help innocent prisoners by altering records, Erzsike recounts her battles for food and protection. As the mistress of Attila, a handsome, ruthless Russian official, she enters into a sham marriage with sad-sack Tamás, again to protect herself and family. Of her three children (two girls, one boy), it’s the older daughter who feels betrayed by a mother who worked for the hated secret police.
The evening becomes a back-and-forth between horrified Judit and self—justifying Erzsike. Meanwhile, son, other daughter and an American visitor attempt to follow the Haggadah, imbibe wine and munch matzohs. Men from Erzsike’s past emerge, like the prophet Elijah, mid-celebration.
“I did the best I could, I just did what I was told,” says the self-exculpatory Erzsike. In answer, Judit’s platitudinous, “A good person stands up for humanity,” is equally familiar. (She does get off the best line, though, when she announces she’ll run for Parliament “in order to make Hungary great again.”)
Besides the warmed-over justifications, the evening is neither frightening nor incisive. Once the initial argument is made, there’s no place to go and we get little sense of what really went on during the occupation.
Fortunately, there’s the language-mangling American, David, to leaven things. As played by the pleasing, Woody Allen-ish Steven Rattazzi, his good nature, along with his desire to get through the ceremony without bloodshed, do more to keep the play on track than the supposed deep revelations.
Mia Dillon’s Erzsike dominates the play as she does the family: fiercely maternal yet self-protective, her rationalizations tinged with guilt and insecurity, Dillon expertly creates a character that embodies ambiguities. Julia Sirna-Frest starts indistinctly as Margit, the other daughter, before finding her groove. Jeremy Webb is a sly Attila, with Liam Craig a sympathetic Tamás. As son Laci, Dustin Ingram grows from a caustic nonentity into a man of conviction. As rebellious daughter Judit, Brigit Huppuch is properly pompous but doesn’t go much beyond screaming at everyone.
Director Elizabeth Williamson paces and blocks the action as best she can. There’s not much variety in the groupings but, then, there’s not much variety in the material she’s been given, either.