by Ron Cohen · June 8, 2014
Indie Artists on New Plays #107 Ron Cohen looks at Ethel Sings at the Beckett Theatre until July 13.
The execution in 1953 of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, convicted of being spies for the Soviet Union, remains a dark and controversial chapter in the annals of U.S. jurisprudence. The married New Yorkers were charged with passing on classified information obtained from Ethel’s brother, David Greenglass, who was working on the atomic bomb project. Their death sentences continue to be debated as being overly harsh and politically motivated , and Ethel’s complicity in the espionage is still uncertain. Did she or did she not type up the information supplied by her brother to be given to the Soviets?
The story has inspired various retellings, such as E.L. Doctorow’s fictionalized version in his novel The Book of Daniel, adapted into a 1983 film called Daniel by Sidney Lumet. Ethel Rosenberg also appears as a ghostly character in Tony Kushner’s prize-winning play Angels in America.
Now Joan Beber in Ethel Sings has written a quasi-Brechtian but sympathetic portrayal of Ethel Rosenberg, as a woman with both idealistic activist leanings (she claims St. Joan as a role model) and artistic aspirations (she yearned to be an actor, singer, writer), entangled in the misdeeds of her husband. At an early point in the play, Ethel says, “They say my only mistake was marrying Julius.”
At the same time, the script makes abundantly clear the love that the Rosenbergs had for each other. The poignant performances of Tracy Michailidis as Ethel and Ari Butler as Julius beautifully amplify this, and this makes for the most compelling aspect of Beber’s play. Michailidis further impresses as she backs up the play’s title with a rendering of an aria from Puccini’s La Boehme.
Not quite as clear, though, is the narrative line of the story. Under Will Pomerantz’s admirably fluid but aggressively theatrical direction, the production plays up the more alienating -- often distracting -- features of Beber’s writing. The proceedings begin with Ethel in Sing Sing, a long imprisonment while the government attempted vainly to convince her to name supposed accomplices. There Beber gives her an imaginary companion, dubbed Loraine/Broadcaster. Loraine occasionally broadcasts brief bulletins on the progress of the Rosenberg case, but more often -- as a sort of mythic everywoman -- she queries Ethel on her life and comments on it. While played with zest by Adrienne C. Moore, the character feels more like an author’s intrusion rather than an integral part of the story.
Furthermore, as Ethel’s history unreels in flashback, there are multitudes of truncated scenes that seem to end just as dramatic tension is building. Brief musical interludes also lend the show a vaudeville feel, and although the 10-person cast delivers dedicated performances, some of the key figures are depicted in cartoon-like caricatures. The prosecuting attorney Roy Cohn comes across as a jumpy, sadistic automaton, and David Greenglass -- who pleaded guilty in a plea bargain incriminating Ethel -- is portrayed as a nervously grinning buffoon.
Still, Beber and Pomrantz commendably infuse tellingly contemporary resonances into the story. As Pomerantz writes in his director’s notes in the program, he “continued to be struck by how current the issues raised by the play remain. The idea of guilt by association…the profligate use of incarceration…systemic inequality of justice.”
These are issues that give Beber’s work a certain heft, despite its dramaturgical wobbles and the questionable -- if perhaps unintended -- jokiness of the title. Is it sort of a twisted pun on Sing Sing and Ethel’s refusal to confess and name names? Or is it meant to be a show business witticism? Although the script carries the subtitle, The Unsung Song of Ethel Rosenberg, theatrically savvy people hearing the title tend to think of Ethel Merman, or perhaps Ethel Waters, and learning that it’s Ethel Rosenberg can either pique their interest or give them a laugh. But as Beber’s play attests, there is little to laugh about in the Rosenbergs’ story.