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Beate Hein Bennett

The Demons Inside
By Deb Margolin

Feb. 20 to March 16, 2024
Theatre Row, Theatre Two, 410 W. 42nd Street
Presented by New Light Theater Project
Wed . – Sat. at 7 PM, Sun. at 3 PM
Tickets: $45 - $35
Buy tickets: https://www.newlighttheaterproject.com, (212) 714-2442
Running Time: 100 minutes, no intermission
Reviewed by Beate Hein Bennett, February 25, 2024

L: Charlotte Cohn as Alina. R: Roger Hendricks Simon as Hillel.
Photos by Steven Pisano.

Each of us harbors private demons but there are also demons embedded in our public and national psyches. All swirl about, at times loudly and other times quietly gnawing at us. Until we collapse or explode! Deb Margolin’s play deconstructs these “epigenetic” (as she calls it) demons in a powerful mash-up in the lives of two generations, that of a father-daughter relationship and a daughter’s troubled marital relationship. The family relationships are explored in the context of larger national political traumas, most notably the 1950s House Un-American Activity Commission [HUAC] under the virulent leadership of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his relentless persecution of presumed Communist traitors among the American citizenry. The parallel political trauma is the post-2020 Big Lie, engineered by Donald Trump, as he is presently heating up the pre-election atmosphere of 2024 with his pledge that he will ”root out communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical-left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country.”

L: Steven Ratazzi as McCarthy; R: Charlotte Cohn as Alina, Simon Feil as Moses.
Photos by Steven Pisano.

Ms. Margolin uses the story of her own father’s entanglement with Joseph McCarthy when he worked as a research metallurgist on the development of titanium, a critical alloy for use in aviation. In 1950, at the height of the Cold War, the US President had invited the young scientist to join the Cabinet. A chance encounter with a young Russian scientist during an international conference that year delivered him into McCarthy’s scrutiny with his cruel interrogation tactics. The question of betrayal and its moral consequences is the driving energy in the play. The daughter questions her elderly father about the actual facts behind his professional fall from grace and her family’s existential troubles. Her questioning her father runs parallel to her questioning her own moral confusion and failure as a wife and mother. A rapid succession of scenes blends these quests with ever increasing urgency—the father’s mental state is fragile and his memory is a mixed blur of relived trauma. Her own dishonesty as a wife and conflicted adulterous passion is juxtaposed with her desperate love for her father and her attempt to dissect his truth. The play and the present performance make for a riveting soul-searching work of theatre.

L: Ken King as Martin, Charlotte Cohn as Alina. R: Frank Licato as Adolf Berle, Roger Hendricks Simon as Hillel. Photos by Steven Pisano.

Supported by an excellent production team that includes dramaturg Ginny Mayer, director Jerry Heymann has assembled a brilliant ensemble of actors who perform his minimalist staging with extraordinary dexterity. The simple set design by Jessica Parker leaves room for movement: five chairs set around the periphery, a full size bed upstage center, a filigree patterned panel, at times backlit, at the back of the stage. Lighting designer Paul Hudson creates atmosphere and fluid time shifts with subtly colored pools of light. Sound designer Jennie Gorn’s sound-scapes punctuate scene beginnings and endings. The main characters remain on stage throughout: Alina, her father Hillel, her husband Moses, her lover Martin, and Joseph McCarthy. In this mixed fluid geography of mind, memory, and time, they are joined at times by two other figures from Hillel’s past: Undersecretary of State Adolf Berle, and Daniil Shinyayev, the young Russian scientist.

First, Alina, played by Charlotte Cohn, enters, sits down on a center chair and begins to talk to the audience, quite intimately about herself and her intended quest. Then she enters the action: she leaves her husband Moses with instructions for taking their daughter to school while she visits her father Hillel at his assisted living facility. Moses is played by Simon Feil as a kind but somewhat inattentive husband. Hillel, seated downstage, is played by Roger Hendricks Simon with face, voice, and body, all superb instruments with which he embodies the entire tragic range of his present and past traumas. With his daughter he can be impish, whimsical, funny, loving and irritated at her solicitousness. When he feels his past emerging like a dream (or nightmare), his voice and his body changes; he becomes the young excited but humble scientist but fearful victim of McCarthy’s fury. Mr. Simon is a virtuoso actor and well matched by Ms. Cohn’s joyful energy. Alina’s personality changes, depending on her being with her taciturn husband or her younger virile manipulating lover Martin, the purported poet, played by Ken King. He exudes macho determination and charm with verbal dexterity and physical force. With Moses she is bored into a loving marital routine, but with Martin she spirals from intoxicated passion to fear of losing her autonomy.

Roger Hendricks Simon as Hillel, Richard Hollis as Daniil Shinyayev, the Russian scientist. Photo by Steven Pisano.

Downstage opposite Hillel sits Senator Joseph McCarthy like a poisonous toad. Steven Rattazzi plays this infamous figure full-tilt. Most of his text is verbatim from the HUAC hearings. In fact the play’s title “This is Not a Time for Peace” is a direct quotation. He is dark, strangely persuasive—analogous to Trump’s lies, he speaks a perversion of truth, as he evokes fears engendered by his own paranoid psyche. Two other actors must be commended: Frank Licato as Adolf Berle, who became Hillel’s advocate in those HUAC hearings, plays him as the dignified Undersecretary of State in stark contrast to the dyspeptic McCarthy. Richard Hollis as Daniil Shinyayev portrays the terrible desperation of a young Russian scientist who is terrorized into extracting from Hillel the secret formula of titanium, or else his fatally ill son will not receive the requisite treatment.

Deb Margolin explores in her play how the private and the political spheres are entangled and how moral questions reach deeply within both spheres that demand ultimately an individual’s resolution based on knowledge of facts as well as an ethical understanding.


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