"He who forgets what he cannot change is happy." Those words are spoken multiple times in Andrea Stolowitz's play The Berlin Diaries, but not because she believes them. She repeats the quote so we'll have time to ask whether it's true. Does forgetting equal happiness? Or is it merely a mask that hides pain without ever healing it?
The Berlin Diaries is about Stolowitz's fraught relationship with the journal of her great-grandfather, Max Cohnreich, a Jewish doctor who escaped Berlin during the Holocaust. The play has been reconfigured as an audio drama by Artists Repertory Theatre, a transformation that hasn't diminished either its intense compassion or its offbeat wit. The format suits Stolowitz's writing, which zigzags through Cohnreich's life with jazzlike grace, excavating traumas of the past to alleviate traumas of the present.
Only two actors (Miriam Schwartz and Michael Mendelson) are featured, but they embody countless characters, including a version of Stolowitz (she told WW in 2017 that her alter ego is "more neurotic"), who is dismayed by the state of her extended family. They rarely speak, and when they do, they don't get along. "It's very strange, Andrea," one character tells her. "It's like we have no one."
Andrea journeys to Berlin, where she researches the people and places Max wrote about in the diary—and those he didn't. She's writing a play inspired by his life, but his journal becomes more than an inspiration. As Andrea retraces Max's footsteps, she seeks to understand the scars the Holocaust left on her family tree—scars that she gradually realizes run deeper than her family has been willing to admit.
Art that is about its own creation risks becoming claustrophobic, but The Berlin Diaries is expansive—and funny. There's a hilarious joke about hemorrhoids, and when Andrea gets drunk in the snow after learning how many people in her family were dead or had vanished by the end of the Holocaust, Stolowitz makes you feel both Andrea's agony and the absurdity of her response to the revelation: "Crazy people rationalize falling asleep in the snow when they drink too much," she quips.
It's worth noting that The Berlin Diaries, which was directed by Dámaso Rodríguez, works beautifully as pure sound. The fact that the actors play multiple characters gives you permission to surrender to the flow of voices and accents. You don't have to remember everyone because the true star of the play is Andrea's perspective—Schwartz and Mendelson seem less like separate performers than two halves of the protagonist's soul.
My favorite Stolowitz play is Psychic Utopia, a work of devised theater about the history of communes in Oregon. It's dreamier and stranger than The Berlin Diaries, but the two plays are united in their intense hunger for connection. When Andrea is aghast at Max's failure to mention members of his family who were killed in the Holocaust in his diary, you don't hear anger. You hear horror at the thought of lives extinguished, then hidden. "And what kind of diary is this anyway?" she wonders.
In The Berlin Diaries, some of Andrea's relatives share her great-grandfather's desire to forget the losses their family has endured, but she persists in her research. While the play leaves you wondering whether that persistence helped close family divides, that is not the sole point of the story. If The Berlin Diaries is about anything, it is about Stolowitz's belief that, contrary to her great-grandfather's words, happiness born of forgetfulness can never yield true joy.
Early in the play, Andrea expresses her dismay at the state of modern theater. "It feels somehow dishonest to encourage anyone to go into this line of work," she declares. I don't know if Stolowitz actually thought that when she wrote the script (or thinks it now), but I do know that The Berlin Diaries is the kind of play that can make a diehard-turned-nonbeliever worship theater again.
SEE IT: The Berlin Diaries streams at
artistsrep.org/performance/berlin-diaries-audio-drama through June 30.