Primo: A Man's Year in Auschwitz
"How can one man hit another without anger?", questions a survivor of the death camp at Auschwitz. Indeed the most striking element of Primo, Sir Antony Sher's solo play adapted from Primo Levi's book If This Is A Man (published in America as Survival In Auschwitz), is how absorbing the evening can be while remaining fairly emotionless. As described by the author, the captors carry out their violent orders calmly and efficiently, sometimes even cordially, without showing any personal resentment toward their prisoners, who find the most effective survival tactic is to be quiet and follow orders quickly. The most frequent sounds to be heard are the peppy tones of a military band pacing the slave laborers through grueling marches. Even when the camp is liberated by Russian soldiers, there are no dramatically joyous scenes; just the stunned realization of what was going on.
But Primo Levi's experiences were not exactly typical. As a middle class Italian Jew educated in chemistry, he was "lucky" (as he words it) to have been sent to Auschwitz in 1944, a time when the Germans had decided to keep the inmates of concentration camps alive longer in order to get more work out of them. As a scholar with valuable knowledge, he was assigned work in a chemical factory where he received gentler treatment.
Broadway playgoers may need to adjust their expectations in order to take in director Richard Wilson's decidedly nontheatrical production, transferred from The National Theatre of Great Britain. Sher's simple, low-key story-telling resembles a book reading more than an acting performance. The text falls on the ears as formal writing and not as spoken language. Dressed by Hildegard Bechtler in a scholarly-looking sweater vest and tie, Sher suggests a lecturer placed on a minimalist theatre set. Behind him are a set of grayish walls, also designed by Bechtler. Rich Walsh's sound design is often interesting and generally unobtrusive, but Paul Pyant's lighting design, the production's only weak element, is overly busy and often confusing.
Sher's manner shows Levi as a man far removed from the horrors he experienced. With analytical detachment he explains the competition for survival and thievery among fellow prisoners, and how a class system is developed among them in accordance to the identification numbers tattooed on their arms. Certain numbers, for example, identify the wearer as a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto riots, and deserving of a certain reverence.
Something as simple as a pair of shoes was used as a tool of humiliation. Wooden soled shoes made long marches torturous and those unlucky enough to be issued an ill-fitting pair eventually developed foot ailments and their inability to walk made them expendable. Levi was lucky again and was issued a pair that fit.
If I seem hesitant to fully recommend Primo, it's only because, despite the expertise involved, its purpose as a theatre piece is never fully apparent. The production would seem just as satisfying if Sher read excerpts standing at a podium in a local book store. And though Sher's performance of Levi's words is certainly worthy of support, I fear Primo may disappoint as many as it deeply moves.