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Review: ‘Walking to Buchenwald’: When family vacation turns into an existential crisis

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Amielynn Abellera, left, and Mandy Schneider play the couple Arjay and Schiller, on vacation with Schiller’s parents (Laura James and Ben Martin) in Open Fist’s “Walking to Buchenwald.”
(Darrett Sanders)

“When you travel, you learn more about yourself than any place you visit,” observes a character in Tom Jacobson’s “Walking to Buchenwald,” now in its premiere by Open Fist Theatre Company in Atwater Village.

Inspired by a European tour Jacobson took with his parents and his partner, the play is a kind of staged travelogue, and watching it is like watching somebody’s vacation slide show getting acted out, except with an undercurrent of growing menace. While preoccupied by the logistics of tourism — taxis, naps, food, differing tastes in museums — the characters move along on a disturbing journey of self-discovery, forced to confront what it means to be American in the world today.

Like Jacobson, the play’s protagonist, Schiller, works at L.A.’s Natural History Museum and has a same-sex partner, here called Arjay. The pair is played either by two women (Mandy Schneider and Amielynn Abellera) or two men (Chris Cappiello and Justin Huen). At the performance I attended, the women were on.

Schiller, a high-strung perfectionist, is the only one who really wants to be on this trip. Her aging Midwestern parents, Roger (Ben Martin) and Mildred (Laura James), have never left the U.S. and aren’t eager to start now; Arjay has been to Europe and doesn’t look forward to weeks and weeks of being, as Schiller calls her, “a buffer.” But Schiller tempts her dad with London theater, lures her mom with genealogical research and sweet-talks the amiable Arjay, and off they all go to England.

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The empty museum display cases that frame Richard Hoover’s minimalist set don’t change as the foursome moves from London to Bath and then to France and Germany. We can track their progress by the accents of the strangers they encounter (all played by the versatile Will Bradley), but the perpetual sameness of their surroundings and Roderick Menzies’ straightforward staging convey an inescapable existential nightmare rather than a colorful, whirlwind tour.

For large swaths of the action, the dialogue sounds like it could be a lightly edited transcript of Jacobson’s actual trip. I wondered from time to time: Is there going to be a plot, or are we just going to watch these people wander through invisible museums, argue about naps and sit in different arrangements of folding chairs?

There is some low-key suspense along the way — each couple has news to share with the other — and a growing, discomfiting awareness that Americans are regarded with hostility in Europe following an election. (“We didn’t vote for him!” they inform more than one intrusive stranger.) But the storytelling is so desultory and episodic that, for all the trains and taxis the characters take, it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

As they near Buchenwald, their final destination, the script veers into magical realism. Statues start speaking, and Schiller’s meticulous planning breaks down, leaving the family lost and helpless in unfriendly woods, hearing terrifying but uncertain fragments of awful news from back home. This tonal shift is more puzzling than dramatic. Audiences may not be entirely sure what Jacobson wants to tell them about history, national identity and individual responsibility — nor will they be calling their travel agents and booking a world tour.

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♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘Walking to Buchenwald’

Where: Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays; ends Oct. 21

Info: (323) 882-6912 or www.openfist.org

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

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