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Theatre in Review: Shadow of Heroes (Metropolitan Playhouse)

Erin Beirnard, Trevor St. John-Gilbert, Michael Turner. Photo: Vadim Goldenberg.

An ugly, but gripping, slice of twentieth-century European history is recalled in Shadow of Heroes, which details how Hungary's post-World War II Communist dawn was darkened by the shadow of the Soviet Union and ultimately wiped out in the uprising of 1956. Robert Ardrey's 1958 drama is an experiment in theatre as journalism, documenting recent events with many of the principals still alive if, sadly, unaccounted for. One of them, János Kádár, was at the time the country's once and future prime minister; he can't have been happy about the way he was portrayed.

Kádár is one of three main characters whose rising and falling fortunes form the drama's spine. During the war, he was the trusted lieutenant (and best friend) of László Rajk, who, as secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee, organized anti-Nazi resistance during the war. Aiding them both was Julia, Rajk's devoted wife and comrade in arms. As the play begins, the war is winding down, and the Soviet Army is approaching Budapest; in a last-ditch gesture, Rajk is arrested and put in a fascist prison. In his absence, Kádár is dispatched to make contact with Erno Gero, who, having sat out the war in Moscow, has been sent to take over the party. He and Matyas Rákosi, the party's secretary, are less interested in their country's well-being than in the fine art of survival under Stalin; they are also repelled by Kádár's working-class roots, sending him off to Russia for a political education.

A few years later, Hungary is officially communist, Rajk is minister of the interior, and Kádár is a member of the Central Committee. Julia is pregnant, and all should be well. Already, however, Rajk is running afoul of the new Soviet-controlled power structure. A tiff with his superiors about whether he should accept a villa in lieu of a tiny apartment crystallizes their differences: Rajk is still devoted to his ideals, while most of his colleagues are devoted to amassing creature comforts and maneuvering for position inside the Stalinist maze. It's not a sustainable situation: Before long, Rajk is in jail, although convicting him proves to be a chore. An attempt at linking him with the officially disgraced Cardinal József Mindszenty is a flop, thanks to a total lack of evidence. Without blinking, his enemies decide he is in league with the Yugoslavian renegade Josip Broz Tito. Well, why not? As far as they concerned, one explanation is as good as another.

By now, Kádár is minister of the interior and a frank co-conspirator against his old friend; Julia has been jailed as well and her son has been taken away. In the play's most bruising encounter, Kádár visits Rajk in prison. The latter has been so badly beaten that he can't even sit up. Kádár, all concern and sweet reason, offers Rajk a deal: If he confesses to the trumped-up charges, his execution will be faked and he will be given a new identity and relocated to Crimea, where he will be reunited with Julia and the baby.

I'm not going to disclose Rajk's decision, but no good comes from it, and the repercussions across the years climax in the spectacle of Soviet tanks rolling through Budapest, crushing a wave of newly resurgent hopes for freedom from tyranny. Ardrey is scrupulous with the facts, introducing a character known as Author who keeps tabs on the action, cluing us in as to which scenes are well documented and which are the result of dramatic guesswork. (In most cases, it is the former.) This device is part of the play's slightly creaky side. Author also informs us up front that the boxes on Vincent Gunn's set will be rearranged to suggest different locations, and several members of the cast will take on multiple roles. Audiences in 1958 weren't used to such methodology; today, it is standard practice.

For the record, the play was produced in London in 1958, not reaching New York until 1961, in a production directed by Warner LeRoy, years before he became known as the impresario of the Russian Tea Room. The cast included Peter Boyle, George Gaynes, Salome Jens as Julia, Abe Vigoda, and Louis Zorich. Interestingly, it ran only twenty performances, despite a strong rave by Howard Taubman in the Times; throughout his career, Ardrey had little luck in the theatre, finding more success as a screenwriter and, later, as the best-selling author of books focusing on science and cultural anthropology.

Shadow of Heroes might not have succeeded originally because its documentary approach was too unusual, or because audiences resisted such a bleak narrative, or because of its very real weaknesses, including some pretty wooden dialogue, especially in the early scenes, when big dollops of exposition are dropped to bring us up to speed on the players and their positions. Also, it is beyond the play's scope to explain the shifts in party position that drive the action -- for example, the conditions that drove the 1956 attempt, for purely cynical reasons, to rehabilitate Rajk's reputation -- an effort that, the play argues, culminated in the suppressed uprising of that year. But in Alex Roe's cleanly staged, generally well-acted production, this story exerts a terrible fascination, demonstrating as it does the uses of power to maintain the status quo behind a Potemkin village façade of social progress. To see Rajk, Kádár, and Julia risk everything in the war against fascism, only to be ground up in the machinery of their communist dream, is to be given a sobering, thought-provoking lesson in the promises of politics and the compromises of human frailty.

The younger members of Roe's cast are, arguably, a tad too fresh-faced for characters who endure more than a decade of physical torments and soul-destroying betrayals, but they all have their moments. Trevor St. John-Gilbert is, initially, a little hamstrung by Rajk's socialist-poster-boy qualities, but he gains power as events go against him; he returns in the second act with a sly turn as a Soviet operative who stage-manages the restoration of Rajk's good name. As per the script, Michael Turner plays Kádár not as a villain but as a dedicated communist who puts the party above all, losing his friends and gaining a crushed arm -- earned during a period of bad odor -- for his efforts. Erin Beirnard's best moments as Julia come when, having learned the world's ways, she sits down for a bare-knuckled negotiation over a state funeral for her late husband. As Gero, David Logan Rankin is suavity itself, effetely holding a cigarette and, being told that his latest victim is innocent, says, through a malevolent smile, "I don't see the relevance." Joel Rainwater is an effective emcee as Author, introducing the characters, providing context, and filling in the gaps in the story.

The no-frills production suits the play well: Gunn's malleable set design allows for swift transitions; it is aided by Jessie Lynn Smith's fluid, if slightly dark, lighting. Sidney Fortner's costumes -- especially the dark suits that signal a character is one of the Moscow men -- are appropriate throughout. Bill Toles' sound design combines music from zithers and accordians with machine-gunfire, rolling tanks, and angry crowds.

As the 1961 Times review indicates, Shadow of Heroes originally shocked with its frank depiction of the corruptions of contemporary heads of state. Seen at a distance of half a centiury, it retains its power, especially given how Hungary has once again fallen into the hands of a neo-fascist strongman. The circle of history is relentless, taking us back to where Rajk and the others were in 1944 -- but who will come to the country's rescue this time? And can their achievements prove more lasting? -- David Barbour

(19 November 2018)

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