“DeliKateSSen” is a riveting portrait of a family thrust into turmoil. Bolstered by a first-rate cast, this engrossing story with one twist after another excoriates a festering wound of hate and trauma with genuine pathos in an emotional, visceral flood of all of your senses.
BY SANDY STAGGS
Shapiro’s Delikatessen is practically a fixture in this insular Midtown neighborhood in New York City, but business is lackluster right now. And the prospect of a flashy new Deli and Beer Garden opening across the street is causing the established Jewish owners (and Holocaust survivors) considerable distress, particularly when they find out their rival restauranteurs are German.
The year is 1972 in “DeliKateSSen,” the engrossing whirlwind drama by Richard Atkins that is receiving its regional premiere at Centre Stage in Greenville through May 21.
And in an unorthodox move, Atkins ‑ the 2016 playwright-in-residence of the company’s New Play Festival where he developed his newest play “The Men of Mah Jongg” ‑ also stars as David, the elder Shapiro who has spent his entire life protecting his kid brother Yossi (embodied by Centre Stage veteran actor Bruce Meahl).
The Shapiros’ horrific experience at the Mauthausen Concentration Camp in World War II happened nearly 30 years, and the subject has been deliberately purged from their memories. David and his wife Sarah (Tiffany Nave) have even whitewashed the demise of Sarah’s entire family when it comes to their teen-age daughter Rachel (Anna Lee Altman), sparing her the horrid truth of how 19 of her relatives were wiped out by the Nazis.
But the murder of their deli delivery man and news of a Palestinian terrorist group known as Black September kidnapping and slaughtering 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics sends David into a frenzied state of pandemonium. His suppressed trauma from the death camp is triggered by the most innocuous of acts such as hearing Johann Strauss’ “Emperor Waltz” being played by a violinist on the street. He becomes highly suspect of everyone, especially the Reinhartds across the way, and contacts a celebrated Nazi hunter to investigate them.
Director Ellen Jones, in her first Centre Stage outing since “Angel Street” (aka “Gaslight”) some five years ago has staged this play superbly with focused, multi-layered performances in an engrossing cathartic production that engages all of the audience’s senses.
The glossy visual façade (see below) and time setting reinforce an element of historical truth, though “DeliKateSSen” is an entirely fictional story, and one refined by dramaturg and playwright Mark Medoff, the Tony and Olivier Award winner for “Children of a Lesser God.”
And while his accent does meander at times, the New Mexico-based Atkins is a highly-skilled and methodical actor who has lived and breathed the Shapiro family for some seven years when he began writing “DeliKateSSen.” He also assumed the part of David in the play’s world premiere in 2015 at the Adobe Theater in Albuquerque.
Atkins embarks on a bewitching, piteousness descent here from a loving family man and business owner to a devastated human being wrought with hate as his backstory is slowly unraveled to the viewer. With rich, multi-faceted pathos, Atkins’ David allows the Holocaust to define his existence and surrenders to his “eye for an eye” vendetta, oblivious to the destructive nature of his hate and the confounding influence it has on those around him.
And Meahl perhaps in his finest, most nuanced performance to date, does the consummate job of the straight guy, the dramatic foil who wants to leave the their torrid past behind. Meahl’s character is the moral epicenter of the drama, as well as the deli and dies a whole lot of cooking in this play.
Ms. Nave and Miss Altman (recent co-stars of “Blythe Spirit” at Spartanburg Little Theatre) lend loads of gravitas to their roles, particularly Altman, whose character has been sheltered from the Holocaust and undergoes a mordant metamorphosis that you won’t see coming.
As the famed Nazi Hunter Yaakov Zeiman, Peter Godfrey, who was also part of the staged reading of “The Men of Mah Jongg” last fall, delivers a resolute performance, steeped in enigmatic intrigue. Presented as a composite of Simon Wiesenthal and a Scotland Yard detective in a trench coat, Zeiman is consumed by war crime justice and has exposed over 100 Nazi criminals via his TV show “Hiding in Plain Sight,” which Atkins modeled after “America’s Most Wanted” hosted by John Walsh.
And among the splendid supporting players, redhead Rachel Jeffreys sports the finest accent in the cast as Maria Schneider, a deli regular who falls for a mysterious Austrian (Centre Stage regular Richard Beveridge) known as Franz Becker. And Ken Kraft (who just appeared as the Monsignor in “Sister Act: The Musical”) rounds out the cast as rival restaurant owner Klaus Reinhardt.
In between the scene transitions, Atkins shows brief visuals on a video screen above the stage of haunting images and obscure and profound quotes and voice overs from survivors and figures from the Holocaust, as well as a “real” news broadcast of events that occur only in the drama itself
There is also a video epilogue with shocking expository revelations that neatly wrap up the plot. However, in my only beef with this production, it is shown simultaneously with the graceful curtain call of the cast members and competes for the viewers’ attention. Perhaps, they could come back after the video for an final bow and get the applause they deserve.
Ms. Nave is also costumer for this play and I really adored the avocado greens for Sarah, and the harvest gold and rust for Rachel.
The set was designed by Executive Artistic Director Glenda ManWaring with an impressive tile-floor painted by Jenni Baldwin. The props were designed by Jessica Eckenrod and Hair & Make-up by Victor DeLeon.
The Stage Manager for “DeliKateSSen” is Christopher Rose with JeanE Bartlett as Assistant Stage Manager. The Lighting and Sound operator is Julie Florin.
“DeliKateSSen” runs through May 21, Tuesday‑Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $15-30. Call the Centre Stage Box Office at (864) 233-6733 or visit http://www.centrestage.org.