Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
A world premiere play about one dark blemish in San Jose's history valiantly attempts to tell to 21st century citizens a Depression-era tale of murder and mob revenge but does so much more like a newspaper column than a drama on stage. The result is that Tom McEnery's Swift Justice at The Tabard Theatre Company unfortunately fails as a compelling script for live performance, even as it draws in totally pre-sold-out audiences.
In 1933, the famously handsome and gregarious Brooke Hart, son and heir-apparent of the owner of the largest department store between San Francisco and Los Angeles, was allegedly kidnapped by two local down-and-outs with no previous criminal record. Immediately shocking the Jewish and greater community where his family was well known and loved, the kidnapping soon became a horrible murder case when the captured perpetrators admitted tossing his body, weighed with concrete blocks, off the San Mateo Bridge. Inflamed by reporters' yellow journalism headlines, live radio announcers' accusations, and a governor's call for immediate justice, thousands of men, women, and children turned daily protests into witnessed-by-all vigilante lynchingsin the city of San Jose, not somewhere in the Deep South.
In Tom McEnery's new play, the Hart family's rabbi at the time, later turned well-known judge, narrates the story. While we meet the key players surrounding the above events as they unfold, Mr. McEnery's script never lets us get to know much about any of them. Several dozen mini-scenes lasting a few seconds to a handful of minutes occur before us, with actors walking onto the bare stage (often carrying stools as the sole properties) to say a few lines, emote (laugh hysterically, cry uncontrolled) in some sudden way, and maybe then hug each other, only to abruptly turn and walk away. This is a script that tells us what we should know instead of allowing us to come to our own conclusions through individual and collective acting and conversations before us.
We are told things, for instance that Brooke is a wonderful son with a huge heart and the Hart family loves to have breakfast-table discussions and debates, but we never get to witness enough of him or them to draw such conclusions ourselves. Further, the script takes few opportunities to explore possible motivations. How much, if any, did anti-Semitism play into the kidnapping and murder of this rich Jewish guy? What was in play for the governor in his almost criminal flaming of the mob's anger? Obvious questions are never really asked, much less explored in ways only a play can do. Finally, with so many scenes and with the script's call for each actor to play often numerous parts, there is often a constant sense of people walking on and off, walking around in the background, repositioning the stools, and suchrather than concentrating on story and character development.
The weak script with its too-many, shallowly developed scenes is further hurt by Karen Altree Piemme's direction. The overall flow of events is often at a snail's pace, with many pauses, slow entrances, and strange decisions of silence as actors at times just stare at each other (or at us). (At one point, for example, we get to watch the painstaking addressing of a ransom note envelope with no supporting monologue or even telling facial expression.)
While the argument could be made that this cast is also uneven in its delivery of the story, the script and direction does not give them much room for displaying any acting finesse. Perhaps the most glaring mistake of all (script, direction, acting), however, is in the Jewish part of the story. Never does the rabbi before us do or say anything that resembles what even the most goy-ish of audiences would expect to see or hear from a rabbi. He is instead a rather bland, objective teller of the tale who is clearly a close family friend but never comes across, by script or by demeanor, as a spiritual leader and guide to the family or the community during these horrific events. (There is also no tale-tell evidence ever that the family themselves are Jewish, although we are "told" that repeatedly.)
Deciding to commission and stage a world premiere is always a high-risk venture. Much kudos go to The Tabard for attaining foundation backing and community support to bring this bit San Jose of dark history to modern attention. Hopefully, the pre-sold-out audiences will walk away more informed and perhaps inclined to read Harry Farrell's award-winning 1992 book ("Swift Justice: Murder and Vengeance in a California Town"). But, as an engrossing play that adds new understanding and raises questions within audience minds about their own prejudices or inclinations, Tom McEnery's Swift Justice just does not deliver.
Swift Justice continues its pre-sold-out run at The Tabard Theatre Company through January 24, 2016, at The Theatre on Pedro Square, 29 North San Pedro Street, San Jose. While no tickets are left for this run, tickets are available for the upcoming I Do! I Do!, running February 12-28 at www.tabardtheatre.org or by calling 408-679-2330.