Joshua Sobol's "Ghetto" is based on the amazing fact that in the Vilna ghetto, at the height of the Holocaust, the Jewish police chief organized a theater to boost morale. In Sobol's play Jews literally sing and dance for their lives, a suitably grotesque image for this dark epoch.
A less amazing fact Sobol uses is that someone built a lending library, presumably from the books of Jews who had been murdered or transported. As their population continued to dwindle, the People of the Book apparently read voraciously.
From such details Sobol builds a potentially harrowing theater piece about the ways people cling to life against incalculable odds. The loosely constructed "Ghetto" has moments in which harsh images comes to deeply uncomfortable life. But for long stretches it is curiously uninvolving.
To work, the play would require real ensemble acting, which cannot be achieved in a conventional rehearsal period. On a minimum level it requires actors who convey forcefully the cruelty of life under the Nazis.
From the way these people move you would never know a war was raging or that they had lost loved ones in unspeakable ways. You would never know they have "supp'd full of horrors," and that, apart from such feasts, their diet has been skimpy. Without this background, their singing and dancing seems unremarkable.
Two performances are powerful enough to suggest how strong the play could be. One is Stephen McHattie as the Nazi who toys with their lives, who, mixing whimsy and sadism, asks to hear Gershwin on pain of death. McHattie has an elegance that heightens his cruelty. Gordon Joseph Weiss is equally impressive as a ventriloquist's dummy, a role full of sardonic humor he performs dazzlingly.
Some of the roles are oddly cast. George Hearn, as the Jewish police chief, doesn't seem nearly Jewish enough, which weakens the agony he must feel as he bargains with McHattie for Jewish lives. Donal Donnelly conveys the proper nervousness as a Jewish garment manufacturer, but his lilting British accent is out of place.
Helen Schneider is moving whenever she sings, but unconvincing when she speaks. Though some of the big scenes, particularly a banquet and the final "number," work well, the production lacks the emotional voltage Sobol's chilling concept needs.
Never underestimate man's inhumanity to man, whether that inhumanity occurs in Central Park or in a Lithuanian ghetto. The savagery beneath the skin is still the mark of Cain, still the atavistic remembrance of tribes past.
What was horrific about the German solution to their self-styled Jewish problem during the days and years of Germany's Nazi philosophy was the coolness of its reasoning, the scientific deliberation of its execution.
This was violence by government, not by mob - this was genocide authenticated by law. Such cruelty was not unknown. Racism in general and anti-Semitism in particular was scarcely a novelty, but never before, at least not since Europe's Dark Ages, had it been so cynically validated and politically esteemed.
It is this horror - the sense of bureaucratic murder and orderly extinction - that comes over so strongly in Joshua Sobol's splendid, moving and provocative play "Ghetto," which opened last night at the Circle in the Square Theater.
The play, and its story, are painful, but this is not just a scream of agony from a dark place we are now only too anxious to forget.
Such a scream might be relevant, might even be timely, but screaming is not to Sobol's purpose. He has not written a play just about Germany's Nazi philosophy of murder, or even the political machinery and human madness behind it.
Death and genocide are made the backdrop, the practical environment, of a play about history, choice, expediency and morality. And, of course, survival - the survival of the human spirit, Abel's only revenge.
The play is subtitled "The Last Performance in the Vilna Ghetto," and it is nominally about a theatrical troupe that actually existed in the Vilna Ghetto under Lithuania's Nazi occupation, starting in September 1941 to its liquidation (that particular but never quite final solution) two years later.
Life in the Ghetto - briefly caught as it was between the punctuation points of the death warrant and the firing squad - had to acquire a semblance of normality.
The Jews were eventually given some limited measure of self-government - there was a Jewish police, even a Jewish administration.
The deaths were constant - Jews being transported to the labor camps, or simply taken out into the woods and shepherded by bullets into mass graves.
Yet there were schools, and there were hospitals, there was even a library. And there was a theater company - which is itself the stage, or trampoline, for Sobol's play.
All drama, when you come to think of it, is about choice. And the precarious choices of the moral acrobats in the ghetto - those final fiddlers on a burning roof - were complex beyond the scope of morality.
Should one rebel, or should one bargain? If one rebelled, what would be the eventual consequences? If one bargained, how much survival was worth how much compromise?
Choices, choices. If you offer 500 Jews (yes, chose them, yourself, for death) is it worth it to save a further 100 who might also have gone to the gas chambers and the ovens?
To collaborate with the devil and buy time and bodies, more practical issues arise. Life-saving drugs are short - should they be issued fairly so that all die equally, or should the stronger, with best chance of life, be favored? The questions of survival never ceased.
Sobol has theatricalized this fragmentary morality play with great skill. He constructs it almost as scenes from this expressionist Vilna cabaret, remembered in the embroidered imagination of its sole survivor, its artistic director, a ventriloquist called Srulik.
Srulik, and his dummy, who had the satirical courage and license to shout out against the oppressors, and Kruk, the librarian who keeps a journal of these plague years, are, like the admired cabaret singer Hayyah, the oddly matched proponents of Jewish culture.
In the political arena are matched Kittel, the Nazi commandant, a smooth-snarling sadist who plays the saxophone and has leanings towards "degenerate" art, the Jewish Administrator, Gens, a master of compromise tempted by power, and Weiskopf, a Jewish capitalist governed by greed but a useful parasite.
I called this a drama about choice, it is also a play about juggling. Sobol juggles his issues and techniques of politics and art, morals and dialogue, character and characters with considerable skill.
These sharp-etched vignettes - Jews being compelled to plunder the clothes of their murdered bretheren, or a ghastly party held at the jack-boot whim of the Nazi boss, even the inevitability of the final slaughter - are kept highly theatrical.
Moreover, the play's tone, its authentic ghetto songs and its atmosphere, are expertly suggested and maintained by its Israeli director Gedalia Besser, the artistic director of the Haifa Theater in Tel Aviv, which premiered "Ghetto" five years ago.
The openness of the Circle in the Square's arena assists both the cinematically fast-moving action, while Adrian Vaux's cleverly vestigial setting, coupled with Edna Sobol's lifelike costumes, heightens the play's sense of a hallucinatory documentary.
The acting - perhaps deliberately - is more conventional than the concept.
Three performances stand out in bold, caricatured vigor: Stephen McHattie, as the gloating, thin-lipped Nazi officer straight from the gates of Hell, Helen Schneider, heroically poignant as the singer, his tortured victim, and the jerky eloquence of Gordon Joseph Weiss as the inhumanly impudent ventriloquist's dummy.
George Hearn is fine as the bluff Jewish leader, Donal Donnelly subtly shows the twisting soul of the businessman, Jarlath Conroy firmly represents the pure Jewish conscience as the librarian, while Avner Eisenberg is wonderfully shy and retiring as the ventriloquist whose heart is in his dummy.
Why do Jews always answer a question with a question? Why? Here, then, is a whole play of questions - and the answers, like this moving play itself, are very much worth your time.
At the bare minimum, dramatic works about the Holocaust have an obligation to restore vivid immediacy to horrors that scoundrels and the passing of time would have the world forget. As presented in good conscience but with scant competence by the Circle in the Square, Joshua Sobol's ''Ghetto'' is too lifeless to meet this minimal requirement. A tedious stage treatment of the Holocaust, however well intentioned, is a trivialization of the Holocaust. One need only look at all the dozing faces in the audience to see that ''Ghetto'' is aiding rather than combating historical amnesia.
Presumably something has happened to Mr. Sobol's play on its circuitous route from Israel to New York. ''Ghetto'' has received acclaim on several continents in other stagings, starting with the initial one directed by Gedalia Besser for the Haifa Municipal Theater in 1984. Though Mr. Besser is in charge of the Circle in the Square version, he is entirely at sea with his locally recruited company. Working with a bizarrely chosen cast that includes actors one associates with the Irish playwright Brian Friel (Donal Donnelly, Jarlath Conroy) and variety performers with little acting experience (the cabaret singer Helen Schneider, the clown Avner Eisenberg), Mr. Besser has fielded perhaps the most ineptly performed production of the Broadway season.
A highly viable dramatic idea has been buried beneath the wreckage. Using a mixture of fact and justifiable poetic license, Mr. Sobel tells the story of the theater that incongruously flourished in the ghetto of Vilna, Lithuania, from 1942 to 1943. Though ''Ghetto'' takes place a few weeks after a majority of Vilna's 70,000 residents had been exterminated by the Nazis, the remaining Jews still ''put on their finery and come to the show.'' Why? Mr. Sobol sees the survival of the theater at Vilna as a testament to the perseverance of the human spirit in the face of unfathomable evil and certain doom.
The point is well taken, but the dramatization of it is diffuse. ''Ghetto'' frequently breaks down into predictable soliloquies delivered by stereotyped ghetto residents. There's an austere socialist librarian (Mr. Conroy) who reads his diary entries to the recorded accompaniment of a pecking typewriter; an oily, ranting entrepreneur who puts his own survival before his community's (Mr. Donnelly), and the German-appointed Jewish leader who endlessly attempts to square his conscience with his collaborationist expediencies (George Hearn). The minor figures are even more anonymous: as played by a large contingent of often-expressionless extras, they seem less like victims of the Nazis than like refugees from an exhausted summer-stock tour of ''Oliver!''
To an extent, ''Ghetto'' aspires to be a musical in the Brecht-Weill mode. Songs that survived Vilna's liquidation are intermingled with the dialogue scenes, both as ironic commentary and as a simulation of the shows presented in the ghetto. But this promising format is destroyed by the seeming arbitrariness of the songs' placement and by the campy delivery of Ms. Schneider, who, one is not surprised to discover in the Playbill, has appeared in ''Cabaret.'' (There's a rouged Joel Grey impersonator in ''Ghetto'' as well.) Though it's to be assumed that Mr. Sobol's play would have more heft in a better production, some of the writing gives one pause. In David Lan's translation, at least, ''Ghetto'' is a fount of cliched rhetoric, with speeches often beginning with constructions like ''No one has the moral authority to decide . . .'' and ''History will judge . . .'' Theatergoers can't be blamed if they tune out before the end of such sentences, or if they refuse to pay diligent attention to canned debates about the nature of art or the validity of the resistance movement.
Even the violent episodes don't create much of a stir in Mr. Besser's desultory staging, which often places the crucial action at the distant end of the arena stage. The evening's sole spurts of energy can be found in a stylized dance of Nazi uniforms (reminiscent of the Polish director Tadeusz Kantor's Holocaust hallucinations) and in the performance of Stephen McHattie, whose German commandant, a sadist of exceptional wit and elevated musical tastes, is drawn in far more specific detail than any of his victims.
Of the other actors, Mr. Hearn is notable for his ability to sustain a single note of sour befuddlement for nearly three hours, while Mr. Eisenberg may be remembered for his ability to speak of the massacre of 50,000 Jews with the offhand annoyance of someone inconvenienced by a minor traffic accident. ''Ghetto'' is almost perverse in its ability to make the true nightmare of our century ring completely false.