As she began to write what became The Berlin Diaries, Andrea Stolowitz knew two things. One, the play would be based on the journals of her great-grandfather, Max, who escaped Germany in 1939 and came to New York. And two, it would need to be told in an unconventional format to prevent it from seeming like just another Holocaust play.
Developed in part by Florida Atlantic University Theatre Lab, The Berlin Diaries will open there Saturday, in a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere. It will be presented here first, followed by independent productions at Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis and CenterStage in Rochester, N.Y.
In effect, Stolowitz has written a detective story, in which she travels to Germany to research the history of ancestors previously unknown to her and bring it into the light. As she says of a character based on herself, “Andrea is on a detective search to unearth the past, really so she can live peacefully in the present.”
The play’s 14 characters are played here by Avi Hoffman and Niki Fridh, each taking on all 14, often switching roles one line at a time.
“I remember early on talking to her about it. She knew she wanted to play with form, so that’s kind of where it began,” says Theatre Lab artistic director Matt Stabile, who stages the production. “And she also had a sense that the character of Andrea has a schism at the beginning of the play, that gets healed by the end of the play. So she had the idea of splitting that character and that’s where I think it began for her.”
Stolowitz felt certain that her narrative had to be in “a form that no one’s ever seen before. If it were done in some conventional form, people would immediately say ‘I know that story. I’ve seen that story. That’s not that interesting to me.’ That’s what I would say, what I would feel.”
“I think the form keeps people just off-balance,” says Stabile. “It’s impossible to get ahead of the story. And I think that’s a good thing. When people get ahead of the story, they tend to lean back and they’re not as engaged.”
Hoffman likens Stolowitz’s script to three-dimensional chess. “When I read the script for the first time. I read the first two or three pages and I went, ‘I have no idea what’s happening. Let me start from the beginning again, with the understanding now of how this needs to work.’ Once I did that, I was so enchanted by how she had chosen to tell the story. It’s so exciting, so visceral.”
Himself the offspring of Holocaust survivors, Hoffman identifies strongly with the play. “For me, in many ways, this is my own personal story. There is so much in this play that is my world. My family, my realization, my discovery,” he says. “It brings back the horror for me, but it also brings back the hope for me. This play makes me want to go home and call everybody in my family, to say ‘How are you?’ I think this play will make people feel like they need to reconnect.”
Fridh, who was first involved with The Berlin Diaries when it had a staged reading in 2018 in Theatre Lab’s Playwrights Forum, feels that any audience confusion over the form is only momentary. “Any confusion disappears, I think, once you do that first scene which sets up that we are Niki and Avi, two actors who are going to tell you this story and we’ll be playing various characters,” she says. “I think that first scene teaches the audience how to watch the play and what to get ready for.”
It was apparent to Stolowitz early on that she would have to be a character in the play. “I kind of suspected that would be the case from the beginning. Regretfully. Because I hate plays where the author is a character,” the playwright says. “And I hate autobiographical plays. So many reasons why I would never write a play like this. But the more I resisted it, the more I saw it was inevitable.”
The play’s experimental form is certainly a departure for Stolowitz, but in other ways she sees the play as linked to her previous scripts. “A lot of my work uses real-life events and actual interviews and narratives,” she notes. “I’m very fascinated by the real, and less interested in the fictitious. Not because I don’t like a good story, but I think the real world has some very fascinating elements to it. There’s a sense of authority that I want to bring into the room by letting the audience know that some aspect of this isn’t just made up from my own mind, but based on real people and what they say.”
Despite being grounded in the Holocaust, there is a lot of humor in The Berlin Diaries. “Yes, I’m a very funny person,” Stolowitz concedes. “You have to make them laugh before they cry. I’ve stolen that completely from Chekhov.”
Summing the play up, Stolowitz says, “‘The Berlin Diaries,’ while it is a very specific lens into my own Jewish background, it’s actually a universal story of the legacy of historical events on individual families. It’s a very individual search for our past in our family member, which I think is fascinating. And it’s funny, y’know? It’s a good time in the theater.
The character Andrea, like the playwright herself, goes on a journey in search of ancestors she never knew. The result is painful, but ultimately positive. “Sometimes finding what you don’t want to find ends up unlocking the next key and that’s kind of how this show works ⸻ a lock box within a lock box within a lock box,” says Stabile. “At the end of the show, she finds joy and reconnection. But you have to be willing to walk through the mud to get to the joy.”
Stolowitz began working on what became The Berlin Diaries in 2016, not knowing it would be ever more relevant now. “Today more than ever, if we don’t remember and learn from these stories, we will continue ⸻ as we are ⸻ to relive the horrors,” says Hoffman. “This story is not morbid at all. It’s so vibrant and full of life and yet, we know what happened. This story is told in a way that is so different, so unique and so important that I think everybody should have to see it.
“It doesn’t feel to me like a Holocaust play. Yes, that’s one part of it, but it’s so much more about family, discovery and connections, and wanting to connect and not knowing how and feeling isolated. So if you’re Jewish, non-Jewish, no matter your color or creed or religion, I think there’s something in this play for everybody.”
THE BERLIN DIARIES, FAU Theatre Lab, Parliament Hall, FAU Campus, 777 Glades Road, Boca Raton. Nov. 25–Dec. 10. $35-$45. 561-297-6124.