The story Henry Jaglom has to tell is a compelling one and the lead actors who bring his star-crossed lovers to life do powerful work. Still, clunky dialog, uneven supporting performances, and problematic set and costume designs make Train To Zakopané: A True Story Of Hate And Love rather a tough go, even for those like this reviewer with a fascination for Europe in the first half of the 20th century.
Polish Army nurse Katia Wampusyk (Tanna Frederick) and Russian émigré Semyon Sapir (Mike Falkow) are strangers on a train to Warsaw when they make each other’s acquaintance thanks to the good will of the Catholic priest (Stephen Howard) who invites the sole single passenger in sight to join him, Katia, and retired actress Mme. Nadia Selmeczy (Cathy Arden) in their compartment for four, the remaining seat having been left empty due to a last-minute cancelation.
Since Semyon is matinee idol handsome, charming, and foreign-accented to boot, it’s no wonder that the attractive but unworldly Katia finds herself drawn to the otherworldly Russian, and in a case of opposites attracting, the sophisticated Semyon would himself seem to be falling under the young Polish woman’s spell.
What we know (since he has conveniently broken the fourth wall to tell us so) and what none of his compartment mates suspects is that Semyon is Jewish, a fact that makes Katia’s sudden burst of virulent anti-Semitism all the more disturbing.
For reasons we can only guess at, Semyon elects not to reveal that he is one of “those people” she claims to be able to “smell a kilometer away,” but rather attempts to reason with her, to make her understand that (forgive the cliché) there are good Jews and bad Jews, selfish Jews and selfless Jews, kind Jews and mean Jews … The list goes on and on but Katia can only see things in terms of good and evil, and so Semyon gives up trying, at least for now.
Instead, he invites her to spend the weekend with him in the ski resort town of Zakopané, though whether motivated by sexual attraction, love in bloom, or some perverse desire to put one over on the virginal anti-Semite, only Act Two can provide the answer.
Playwright Jaglom takes his good long time in revealing what lies in Semyon’s mind and heart, and both acts of Train To Zakopané: A True Story Of Hate And Love could use a bit of a trim.
More troublesome is the playwright’s decision to have his characters speak so artificially (in an attempt to remind us that they’re actually speaking Polish?) that even Frederick and Falkow struggle at times to make his words sound natural.
Calling Train To Zakopané “A True Story Of Hate And Love” is rather a misnomer since a glance at Jaglom’s Playwright’s Note reveals so much of it to be invented.
Secondary characters in each act are mostly of the playwright’s contrivance, which may be one reason they come across more as plot conveniences than as three-dimensional creations.
Equally vexing is the playwright’s decision to combine two real-life characters into one, a coincidence that, despite the dramatic surprise twist it provides, makes it clear that in this case at least, fiction is stranger (and considerably less credible) than truth, and might even provoke laughter from less forgiving audience members rather than the emotional response the revelation is intended to induce.
This is not to say that Train To Zakopané: A True Story Of Hate And Love is without its merits.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a play or film that has made me so aware of the pervasive, matter-of-fact virulence of anti-Semitism among Hitler-era Europeans, a firmly ingrained hatred that helps explain why, out of an estimated 3,300,000 Polish Jews, only about 300,000 survived the Holocaust.
More importantly, with Frederick revealing much of the depth and poignancy and heart that made her performance in The Rainmaker so unforgettable, and Falkow making Semyon such a suave, sophisticated charmer that few could have failed to resist his allure (or his sexy South African accent standing in for Russian), the two young lovers’ whirlwind romance does at times achieve classic proportions.
Director Gary Imhoff does his best with the material he has been given, though there is hardly a cast member that doesn’t seem at times to be stumbling over his or her lines.
Among supporting players, DeSarla and Elam fare best with Jaglom’s stilted words, if not as successfully as the leads. Howard’s Father Alexandrov, however, ends up more two- than three-dimensional, and Arden is shaky at best as Mme. Selmeczy.
Production design proves disappointing as well, particularly since Jaglom’s previous The Rainmaker and Just 45 Minutes From Broadway featured such extraordinary sets and costumes.
Construction of scenic designer Chris Stone’s unwieldy, unattractive set not only delayed Opening Night by several weeks, it goes on consuming time during overlong scene changes (despite the efforts of at least four stage hands). As for Shayna Frederick’s costumes, they are a mishmash of eras, most egregiously Marousia’s WWI-era cinched coat and dress, Katia’s mini-skirt, and Dr. Gruenbaum’s contemporary business suit and cardigan, though some are quite perfect as is. And speaking of anachronistic designs, Arden’s shoulder-length straight do could not be more out of place under Mme. Selmeczy’s 1920s turban.
Juliette Klancher’s lighting design, Roxanne Lecrivain’s properties, and an uncredited sound design featuring 1920s ditties fare considerably better. Maryne Daavid is scenic artist.
Train To Zakopané: A True Story Of Hate And Love is produced by Alexandra Guarnieri. Teferi Seifu is stage manager and Yusuke Matsuda assistant stage manager.
I called Henry Jaglom’s 2009 hit Just 45 Minutes From Broadway “one of the best new plays I’ve reviewed on StageSceneLA.” Though director and leading lady return for his latest effort, the same cannot unfortunately be said about Train To Zakopané: A (Not Completely) True Story Of Hate And Love.
Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main Street, Santa Monica.
December 18, 2014
Photo: Ron Vignone