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THEATER REVIEW

'Accomplices' by Bernard Weinraub

The former New York Times reporter has done his homework, but that doesn't make for a good play.

By Charles McNulty

Times Theater Critic

July 25, 2008

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High-profile reporting isn't the usual route to becoming a playwright, but in one respect Bernard Weinraub's newspaper pedigree serves him well in "The Accomplices." Like any muckraker worth his salt, Weinraub knows how to level accusations and make them sting.

Choppily directed by Deborah LaVine at the Fountain Theatre, this historical drama has more polemical substance than documentary style. Character construction and dialogue aren't Weinraub's strong suits, and one occasionally has the impression of watching a simulation not unlike those ludicrous pharmaceutical commercials in which an actor playing a doctor tries to ease us past fears of a drug's terrifying side effects.

To his credit, Weinraub, who has covered presidential politics and the movie business for the New York Times, has an impressive gift for journalistic distillation. In particular, he's able to synthesize reams of unwieldy information into efficient summaries that spell out headline-grabbing points.

The target of his investigative ire here is the failure of Franklin D. Roosevelt's White House to do everything possible to rescue imperiled European Jews during the Second World War. As the genocide murderously unfolded, FDR's administration played politics, worrying about poll numbers and immigration worries while ignoring the insidious anti-Semitism in its own preppy chambers.

With the exception perhaps of Eleanor Roosevelt, no one gets off the hook. Not the patrician president (James Harper), who wants to avoid political damage; not Rabbi Stephen Wise (Morlan Higgins), the powerful American Jewish leader who was cautious about jeopardizing his unrivaled political access; not even Weinraub's former employer, the Gray Lady, which was strangely reticent about the ensuing catastrophe.

It's a damning case, though unfortunately Weinraub's novice skills as a dramatist often transform his reportorial findings into connect-the-dots caricature. Breckinridge Long (Brian Carpenter), the obstructionist State Department official who blocked Jewish refugees from entering the U.S., deserves the disgrace that's heaped upon him. But sketched as a kind of funny pages Ivy Leaguer more interested in golf putts than human lives, he seems a less credible villain than he should be.

The story follows the perspective of Peter Bergson (Steven Schub), the Jewish activist also known as Hillel Kook, a name he knew wouldn't do him any favors during his American campaign to save the Jews from the Holocaust. But there's such a discrepancy between the moral of Bergson's obsessive pursuit of intervention and the phony telegraphic manner in which it's dramatized that one would prefer to read a more polished magazine account of the saga by Weinraub.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com