The melodrama is set to boil in “Seder”, the woefully overcooked new play by Sarah Gancher currently hyperventilating at Hartford Stage. The play, a world premiere for the theatre, has been in the works in various readings and workshops for the past two years. I would like to report that the wait was worthwhile. It was not.
Set in Budapest on the first night of Passover in 2002, “Seder” explores the mysterious past of Erzsike (a valiant Mia Dillon), a retired typist who worked for the Hungarian KGB. In the present, Budapest’s House of Terror Museum has opened and its “Wall of Murderers” includes Erzsike’s photo. We soon learn that Erzsike’s bitter daughter, Judit (Birgit Huppuch), works for the museum and is responsible for the photo’s placement. Ouch. Judit returns to the family home for a Passover Seder where she joins her passive sister, Margit (Julia Sirna-Frest), Margit’s American Jewish boyfriend, David (Steven Rattazzi) and her ne’re-do-well brother, Laci (Dustin Ingram). The reunion, suffice it to say, is not a happy one.
The drama, based on a true story and thankfully played without intermission in Hartford, alternates between past and present as Erzsike’s relationship with her cruel Nazi boss (Jeremy Webb in a one-note role) and weak husband (Liam Craig) is recalled in flashback. At the Seder, the daggers come out, accusations are made, the past is relived and objects are smashed. In another flashback Erzsike is raped on the dining room table while Margit and David make out on the kitchen floor. Judit prowls the stage in stilettos and power suit blathering about “making Hungary great again” and crying over her painful childhood. There are few if any characters on exhibit that you care about as all are, to varying degrees, either annoying or reprehensible.
It’s also hard to imagine more mediocre or amateurish acting on a professional stage. Miss Huppuch, so memorable in Yale Rep’s “The Moors” last season, is adrift here with a role so obnoxious and self-centered one wishes she would just shut up and leave. Mr. Craig has a drunk scene that has to be one of the most inept I’ve ever witnessed and pity Mr. Rattazzi who has the lion’s share of awful lines and misplaced jokes as he tries to conduct a Seder within this house of horrors. Only Miss Dillon emerges unscathed in what amounts to be an impossible role with her letting her hair down for a youthful past then pinning it quickly back into place for present day scenes.
Director Elizabeth Williamson has directed at a fever pitch eliciting performances that are hyperbolic and surprisingly unsympathetic. Nick Vaughan’s scenic design includes a photo backdrop of the “Wall of Murderers” dramatically lit by Marcus Dilliard. The crackling sound design by Jane Shaw serves to jar and distract when needed. All considered though, “Seder” remains a very unpleasant theatre experience.
“Seder” continues at Hartford Stage through November 12. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 860.527.5151 or visit: www.hartfordstage.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: email@example.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.