Seen on Broadway: The occasional Hairspray aside, summer openings on Broadway are by and large equivalent to post-Christmas movies, the January and February duds that only the most desperate cineastes bother with. There are ego-driven curiosities (Kelsey Grammer as Macbeth), bad musicals (last season’s Dracula The Musical), and one-person shows of highly variable quality. We’ve already seen Hal Holbrook one more time as Mark Twain, and Suzanne Somers is driving her vanity Thunderbird out of town this weekend after a run vastly shortened by hostile reviews and indifferent boxoffice. This ropey track record makes Primo, a National Theatre import playing a limited run till early August, an all the more worthy achievement.
Its star and adapter, Antony Sher, puts himself completely at the service of his subject, chemist, writer, and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, in a devastating account of his incarceration at Auschwitz. There are flashes of bitter humor as Sher literally walks us through Levi’s fraught prison routine, occasioning slightly nervous laughter, but in years of theatergoing I have never seen an audience more quiet or respectful. [Just as in years of moviegoing I have never seen an audience more hushed than at the monumental Holocaust documentary Shoah, which Sher considered in bringing this material to the stage.] Sher and his director, Richard Wilson, have a great subject with a formidable tale to relate (from Levi’s memoir If This is a Man), and they let the story speak for itself in 90 highly concentrated minutes. What we witness, through Sher’s understated but thoroughly committed playing, is a gradual, dehumanizing process of annihilation, starting with the branding of the arm tattoos. "To destroy a man is difficult, almost as difficult as to create one," Levi observes. "It has not been easy or quick, but the Germans have succeeded."
There is a second character onstage at the Music Box, which scenic and costume designer Hildegard Bechtlerhas decorated sparely with bare concrete walls and, in a corner alcove of the unforgiving set, an insinuating pile of ash and cinders. Sher’s eloquence as Levi is perfectly matched by the lighting of Paul Pyant, recreated in New York by David Howe. Small pools of illumination follow Levi as he goes about his daily routines; night falls, then a harsh glow erupts from the shadows. Its starkness, synched to the themes of the show, speaks volumes on its own in its unostentatious way. [GSD provided the lights and Sound Associates the audio gear; Rich Walsh is the sound designer.] For its lighting of a single candle in the darkness, Primo is a commendable production. --Robert Cashill