BST’s Tense “East of Berlin” is a Captivating Thrill

A young man (Orlando Grant) lights a cigarette downstage right and tells us about his birth in Berlin in 1945 and how he has come to live in Paraguay in a little German enclave that has its own school, beer halls, newspaper, and even celebrates Hitler’s birthday. He tells us that his father only gets drunk twice yearly, at Christmas and on Hitler’s birthday. His father’s desk has only two pictures on it; a photo of him, Rudi, and Hitler.

Orlando Grant & Kara Arena/John Sowle

Rudi has been told his whole life that his father, who now works for a pharmaceutical company, was a troop doctor during the war. It is not until a friend in biology class, as they dissect beetles, tells him that Rudi learns that his father was a concentration camp doctor conducting experiments on the prisoners “east of Berlin,” specifically in Auschwitz.

The play has three actors, and Rudi’s account of life in Paraguay is rather dour with sardonic touches. The entrance of Hermann, played breezily by JD Scalzo, offers a lightness and music to the piece lifting our spirits for a brief while as he and Rudi negotiate the new space between them. They enter into a relationship which, along with the wartime occupation accusation, creates a rift between Rudi and his father, which drives him to Berlin to examine more of the past. The two young men have an easy, jostling rapport that brightens the play considerably.

In the archives, Rudi meets the third character, Sarah (Kara Arena), who was born of a Jewish mother liberated from the camps and an American G.I. She is there for her family’s housing records while Rudi is examining camp photographs, searching for his father. It is not long before she is sitting on top of him, exclaiming that “It feels right.” The two of them are on a quest to escape their transgenerational trauma.

Orlando Grant & Kara Arena/John Sowle

The fascinating play has a grim trajectory that makes you dread each successive step. An unreliable narrator who confesses to exaggeration speaks of being the son of Nazis and, when confronted with the truth, returns to the scene of the crimes and builds a relationship built on lies. I braced myself for the last third of the play for what was coming…and I still didn’t see it.

The exceptional cast could not be bettered. They have all done impeccable dialect work and rivet your attention throughout. Orlando Grant is particularly impressive shouldering the story as he is onstage the entire 90 minutes, and he had my rapt attention throughout. JD Scalzo & Kara Arena are the shining lights in this play, and they never fail to brighten every scene with their entrance. The production easily grips you from start to end with these three superlative performers.

Margo Whitcomb, who directed last season’s equally impressive “Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes” at Bridge Street by the same author, Hannah Moscovitch, does fantastic work with the three actors, the minimal set, and Moscovitch’s spare, incisive dialogue.

The play could not be more timely as we head into another presidential election season, confront the lies and misinformation of our vanquished past, and struggle to move beyond them. “East of Berlin” is a terrifically tense thriller that will stoke your hopes and fears for a seemingly impossible just resolution.

“East of Berlin” is playing at Bridge Street Theatre through 6/4. Tickets:

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