Although it happened less than four months ago, the millennium seems a thousand years away. But now that the hype is gone, the arrival from London of Martin Sherman's "Rose" seems oddly timely.
This quietly harrowing one-actor play offers what was missing from all the celebrations - a somber reflection on the 20th century.
Through the life of one Jewish woman, "Rose" tells the story of a century in which everything changed except the violence of the strong against the weak.
This is one of those rare plays in which there is no gap between what it says and how it works.
On the one hand, "Rose" is about as undramatic as a piece of theater can be. An 80-year-old woman, played by Olympia Dukakis, sits on a wooden bench in her apartment in Miami Beach and talks to us.
On the other, it describes a tumultuous journey through anarchic times.
Rose grows up in a shtetl in the Ukraine. She moves to Warsaw, where her husband and child are murdered in the Nazi assault on the Jewish ghetto.
She survives and sails to Israel on the Exodus refugee ship. Forced to return again to Europe, she marries an American and moves to Atlantic City.
But even though she ends up as a prosperous hotelier in Miami Beach, her children and grandchildren are in Israel.
The emotional climax of the play is on the West Bank, where the murder of a Palestinian child triggers a bleak elegy for her own lost daughter.
The play centers on this contrast between the stillness of what we see and the chaos of what we hear. And Sherman's point turns on a similar contrast: In all the extraordinary changes of the century, the things we did to each other did not change at all.
Indeed, "Rose" marks a real maturing in Sherman's output. While works like "Bent" and "A Madhouse in Goa" have long marked him as a formidable talent, "Rose" adds a missing ingredient: restraint.
Where a less-accomplished writer might have piled on the horror, Sherman here grasps the power of understatement.
Because it emerges bit by bit from behind a protective screen of Yiddishe-mama mannerisms, Rose's pain is far more real than any wild outpouring of emotion.
This does, nevertheless, place a huge burden on Dukakis. While the one-actor show is usually seen as an opportunity to show off, "Rose" demands fierce self-control.
She is not helped, moreover, by the venue. For a show that demands intimacy and intensity, a midsize Broadway theater like the Lyceum is far from ideal.
But Dukakis rises - magnificently - to these challenges. Her performance, under Nancy Meckler's pitch-perfect direction, is a small miracle of emotional awareness.
Alert to the truth of every moment, she steers the story with an uncannily sensitive touch through all the lurking reefs of sentimentality and mawkishness.
There is nothing heroic or spectacular about her acting. But this elegy for a century's dead is no place for spectacle.
Dukakis shows that sometimes, a single "Rose" can be a more moving tribute than a big bouquet.
Olympia Dukakis sits for the entire evening center stage - it looks like she's sitting on a table in the midst of a strange room - and tells us, in the first person, the story of Rose's life in "Rose," the new play by Martin Sherman at the Lyceum.
"Rose" started with Dukakis, last June at London's Cottesloe Theatre - a small, dark space where this recitation would seem at home. In the Lyceum, it seems lost and odd.
Dukakis is a likable and savvy performer who uses a full bag of tricks to interest us in Rose.
She affects a strong - but never for a second unintelligible - Yiddish accent as she rehearses a life that, miraculously, touches on so many moral problems.
Rose, Dukakis tells us, was a young Jewish girl in the Poland of the pogroms. Her mother was a sort of pagan saint, her father a selfish invalid killed during a pogrom by a falling medicine chest.
Rose took off for Warsaw, where she married a crazy modern painter who liked to take her to see cowboy and musical pictures.
This habit reinforces one of Rose's peculiarities: She cannot distinguish between her own memories and the movies' version of them.
It's an unlikely malady for a woman of Rose's time; in fact, it's more typical of the 1990s.
The Nazis come, and a handsome young German soldier shoots Rose's daughter Esther in the face. After the war, she is, natch, on the boat Exodus heading for Palestine. She cannot tell the difference between her experience and the 1960 Paul Newman movie.
Is this likely? A sailor named Sonny Rose falls for her, though, and takes her off to Atlantic City, where she becomes Rose Rose.
It is McCarthy's time; Rose is against McCarthy.
She has a son, Abner. After the death of her husband, she's off to Miami Beach, where she comes to own a hotel, the Double Rose.
Her third husband is a hippie, and her fourth is a businessman.
Abner goes off to Israel, where he weds Kim, a Yankee convert to Judaism. Rose visits and is made uneasy by Abner's contempt for the Yiddish culture of her youth and by Kim's new Jewish fanaticism.
Her grandsons include a gay film editor in Los Angeles and an Israeli soldier.
The soldier shoots an adorable little Palestinian girl.
In Rose's world, Israel becomes the latest version of Nazi Germany. Is all this plausible? Is it not rather a hip, '90s gay-leftist take on modern history, using as its mouthpiece a Jewish woman of '30s Poland?
The play, an insufferable lecture, is Martin Sherman's coy imagining of the past, not surprising from one who imagined himself a gay victim of the Nazis in the 1997 film "Bent."
Rose is finally less a person than a handy device for Sherman to hand us his vision of the 20th century.
Watching Olympia Dukakis perform ''Rose,'' a play-length monologue by Martin Sherman, will provoke an unpleasant queasiness in anyone who has ever felt guilty about dismissing a rambling grandparent.
An 80-year-old Jew who grew up in the Ukraine, survived the Warsaw Ghetto and the postwar attempt by the British to stem the flood of refugees to Palestine, pursued the American capitalist ideal and ended up running a hotel in Miami Beach, Rose has lessons about the century to impart. But for all its picaresque detail, her story resonates on the tired frequency of a lecture about the wages of forgetting the past. If you are not of a certain age, you may react to her as a child to a relative who has overtaken one too many family gatherings: Yes, Grandma. Now can we go out and play?
The play, presented by Lincoln Center Theater, opened last night at the Lyceum Theater on Broadway. It had a critically praised run last year at the Royal National Theater in London, where perhaps the message about the post-World War II American experience as a soothing but pallid echo of life in prewar Europe can be received more cheerily. But directed here, as in London, by Nancy Meckler, the production has a finger-wagging quality. It comes through in the writing of Mr. Sherman, an American who lives in England, and in the performance of Ms. Dukakis, who doesn't seem to have inhabited the character of Rose so much as seized on her to make a point: Listen! This is good for you.
Actually, it's hard to fault the actress. Rose is, after all, less of a real character than a construct, the symbol of a century in which victims of atrocities in Russia and Germany are now witnesses to, if not compliant with, their re-enactment in the Middle East. This, anyway, is the sincere if not terribly original perspective of Mr. Sherman, who offers it here with grave and intrusive sentimentality.
Mr. Sherman, best known as the author of the concentration camp drama ''Bent,'' has put together his script so that from the moment it begins, with Rose in ominous mourning for a murdered 9-year-old girl, the signposts of a narrative meant to reflect back on itself are marked in neon. And even if you miss one, the playwright makes sure it redounds brightly. When Rose, the Holocaust survivor, in her frivolous 40's, goes to live in a commune in Connecticut, she describes the experience this way: ''We smoked a lot of dope and talked about peace and love and noble things, and I did not mention the last time I lived 12 to a room lest I blacken their innocence.''
Rose has had some colorful time of it! Cossacks and Nazis, sex and marijuana, two dead husbands (each of whom she meets cute), a shiksa daughter-in-law who becomes a militant Israeli, a gay grandson, Atlantic City, Hollywood. God and godlessness, too; at some point along a complicated and tragicomic life arc, she becomes an agnostic. How could she not? She also becomes a comedian.
She learned in childhood, she says, ''that Judaism's greatest contribution to mankind was asking questions that can't be answered and that the glory of the race has less to do with giving the world Moses and Marx and Jesus and everything to do with the invention of the phrase 'on the other hand.' ''
This remark, offered early on, is with its presumed cleverness telltale. Throughout the play, Rose's penchant for weary wisecracking, or maybe just her mode of expression, rings false. Either Mr. Sherman is talking through her, or else in the year it took Rose to become fluent in English, she assimilated a lifetime of Borscht Belt humor.
''I suppose if you have your first period and your first pogrom within the same month,'' she says, ''you can safely assume childhood is over.'' Ba-dum-bum. You'd hate to tell such a worthy old woman that she's really not all that clever.
This is one of many rugged obstacles for Ms. Dukakis. A play that calls for its one performer not to stir from a bench at center stage is, after all, one that commandeers an actor's tools. Ms. Dukakis, sitting at the forward point of a down-raked floor and working mostly with her eyes -- which can go from a tired glaze to a pale burn in an instant -- makes a genuine connection with the audience. And even if her accent isn't quite identifiable or her body language doesn't describe a woman as feeble as Rose claims to be, it's hard work she's engaged in: two hours of fierce remembrance in physical repose.
Indeed, the tremulous quietude of Rose's life in her old age is one thing the production makes absolutely vivid. Behind Ms. Dukakis, the set depicts the spacious living room of the apartment Rose occupies in the hotel she once owned. Sparely furnished, with an open door barely visible in the dim background, it has a chair and a tall cactus plant off to one side, against window blinds shut against the shifting light of late afternoon passing to early evening. It's all quite beautiful and lonely, an impression made more potent by the muffled sounds of life periodically rising from the street: a boombox, a siren, cars passing.
The designers, at least -- Stephen Brimson Lewis (set), Johanna Town (lighting) and Peter Salem (sound) -- have done wonderfully subtle work.
It's that merry old English time of year again --- the spring theater season. Last week brought back-to-back Broadway openings of plays that originated at London's Royal National Theater: "Copenhagen" and "Rose." "Rose," however, is an atypical English import. It stars American actress Olympia Dukakis and was written by Martin Sherman, an American playwright who lives in London, and it tells the story of a Jewish American octogenarian whose life has been shaped by various turning points --- mostly harrowing --- of 20th century history.
It's too bad, then, that this binational artistic alliance, which is being presented at the handsome Lyceum by Lincoln Center Theater, isn't a more exciting play. It provides Dukakis, who is the sole performer, with a role that's both technically taxing and theatrically comfortable, and she performs it with admirable humor, intelligence and ease. It will probably play to good crowds during its limited run, thanks to subject matter of particular appeal to Broadway theatergoers.
But there's something pat and even rote about this cozy tour through the highs and lows of a woman's life. It's a familiar-feeling saga of survival that doesn't linger very probingly or rewardingly on any of the episodes in Rose's calamity-packed journey. The dark background of the Holocaust and its aftermath give the play a kind of superficial gravitas that the writing itself doesn't often earn.
Dukakis performs the play sitting on a bench --- Rose is sitting shiva for a young girl, and, as she proceeds to relate her life story over the next two hours or so, we learn that periods of mourning have been a recurring event for Rose. Born in a shtetl in the Ukraine, the intellectually curious girl followed her brother to Warsaw to escape the stultifying --- and dangerous --- nature of village life. "I suppose if you have your first period and your first pogrom within the same month, you can safely assume childhood is over," Rose dryly recalls.
In Warsaw she falls in love with a painter. "Yussel wasn't a bad artist. He wasn't exactly a Chagall, but then who is? Jews aren't visual --- look at what they wear," she cracks, in one of the many shticky moments that alternate with the play's sticky ones. Those come soon enough, as Rose gives birth to a daughter, Esther, shortly before the arrival of the Nazis in Poland.
Rose survives the ghetto alone and soon finds herself on a boat to Israel, the promised land, where a political contretemps surrounding the Exodus brings her back to life after a period of numbness. Helping out in this respect is Sonny Rose, the Jewish American sailor she meets aboard the ship and eventually marries. They move to Atlantic City, where Rose Rose, as she is now called, starts a new family. Later Rose's adventurous life takes some more surprising turns, particularly when she takes off with a younger lover to live in a commune (after Sonny's death, mind you).
Rose's tough, unsentimental voice is convincingly rendered by Sherman's colloquial, often piquantly funny writing, and Dukakis impeccably inhabits the heart and mind of this feisty survivor, who still speaks her W's as V's ("I vondered vat vould happen..."). The play moves smoothly along under Nancy Meckler's unfussy direction, with emotional climaxes subtly cued by Joanna Town's affectionate lighting.
But in the end, Rose's recounting of the emotional vicissitudes of her saga does not make for a lively evening of theater. A life, however filled with incident it may be, is not inherently dramatic, and most of the drama in "Rose" feels lifted, chapter by chapter, from the history books. This material has simply been mined too often to maintain its fascination in this sober but skin-deep rendering.
Nor does "Rose" dig deeply into any of the larger issues it raises, such as the existence (or not) of God in the hearts of Holocaust survivors, the death of European Jewish culture, and the moral ambiguities of the new Zionist culture that rose from its ashes.
As Rose confidentially recounts the joys and trials of her life, the lovemaking and the heartbreak, the clashes with history and the dramatic surprises, Sherman's play eventually begins to resemble a solo stage version of one of those panoramic romance novels that plop an indomitable heroine down in a tumultuous historical period and let her run a gauntlet of heart-tugging obstacles on her way to wisdom and contentment. "Danielle Steel's Diaspora," heaven help us!