At the Music Box, Antony Sher walks onstage and starts talking, and 90 minutes later walks off. No scene changes, costume swaps, or co-stars assist him—how could they? He has adapted Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man (published in this country as Survival in Auschwitz), making the honorable decision to recount the Italian-Jewish chemist’s Holocaust ordeal without spectacle or histrionics. Sher and director Richard Wilson seem to believe that this is the best way to do justice to Levi’s words onstage. But even if they’re right, what Primo really proves is that there is no way to do justice to Levi’s words onstage. Despite the awful power of the subject and the spare, shattering quality of the text—Levi likens prisoners to “sordid puppets” and describes the “geometrical madness” of the slaughter—much of the show proves strangely uninvolving. Sher in his earnestness sometimes adopts the singsongy tone of a man addressing a group of very bright children. He captivates only sporadically, as when he turns to regard an S.S. officer barking orders at him: The focus and intensity of the look are so convincing that as I followed his gaze, I was sure I’d find a Nazi standing there. Even from an actor as fine as Sher, the uninflected style can’t help but feel second-best, achieving neither the private intensity of the page nor the magnifying sweep of the stage. The show finds no answer for the physical fact of Levi’s book—the concreteness of page after page of testimony that plays so crucial a role in its authority, in its vital, untranslatable appeal.
Music Box theatre