Some tales are best told simply. Let the story breathe and the characters grow, and the basic human truths will shine through. But writing simply is a lot harder than you'd think, and so we get Where Were You on Your Ninth Birthday? a sometimes-unwieldy yet unflinchingly honest and moving autobiographical play by new local author George Rothman.
In 1942, Rothman's parents entrusted him to a French couple named Lequien. Shortly after, the Rothmans were arrested by the Nazis and taken to Auschwitz, and young George was hidden in an orphanage for the duration of the war. After he grew up and came to America, he took great pains to submerge his history and heritage, only recently taking the first tentative steps toward confronting and embracing his past. Where Were You, directed here in its first production by OCC professor Alex Golson, is his own, thinly fictionalized story.
The play bounces unevenly between David (Michael Cavinder) and Laura's (Malia Fee) beach bungalow in 1972 and the Dupree home in 1942 Paris. In each setting, someone's son is about to reach his ninth birthday. While David and Laura argue over whether to take him to Israel or Washington, D.C., as a present (that means something, class), Esfira and Joseph plead with the Duprees to save their young David before the Nazis deport them.
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It's intended as a study in contrasts, but this dual-narrative structure sometimes saps energy from the play, with the two stories occasionally competing with instead of complementing each other. The casting is also a bit uneven: Cavinder, as Rothman's proxy David, delivers a very finely measured and fiery performance, but Mme. and M. Dupree (Anne Gray and Henry Wyatt Moore) could do with a bit more intensity—if we've learned anything from the recent streak of Holocaust-themed drama in the county, it's that you don't say "Damn Nazis!" in the same tone of voice you'd use for "Please pass the truffles."
Still, Where Were You sometimes burns brilliantly, particularly through David. His struggles with guilt and identity—as a Jew, as someone touched so closely by the Holocaust, as a son who can't even remember the father he's outlived—are rendered with an eloquence eclipsed nowhere else in the play. Rothman's other characters are sometimes broadly sketched, but when he writes himself, it's with riveting precision and almost tearful, uncompromising clarity. In David the play's (and the playwright's) deepest and most affecting questions are cast in the sharpest relief: Simply, how does a man so tangled in his history go on to live his life?
As it stands, Where Were You is a compelling story burdened with unnecessary complexity and carried by the strength of Rothman's own experiences. That those experiences transmit so vividly at times is a credit to the production. Stripped down, Where Were You could transform its already-potent and personal substance into something unforgettable.
Where Were You is paired with Lou Gehrig Did Not Die of Cancer, a play about typically shrill New Yorkers wallowing in despair, isolation, and lots of scotch and soda. It's the kind of drama they used to sell by the yard in the '70s, but it's slapped into life by lively and spot-on performances by Greg McClure (as Victor, who, of course, just can't win) and Jessica Marie Hutchinson (Barbara, as sharply sarcastic as you'd expect) and a respectable but somewhat muted appearance by Miracle Laurie as Helen. It's not as life-or-death as Where Were You, but it still hits as close to home as it probably ever did—some things about people don't change. WHERE WERE YOU ON YOUR NINTH BIRTHDAY? AND LOU GEHRIG DID NOT DIE OF CANCER AT ORANGE COAST COLLEGE DRAMA LAB, 2701 N. FAIRVIEW, COSTA MESA, (714) 432-5640. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun. 2 p.m. $5-$6.