THE HERO OF THE SLOCUM
nytheatre.com review by Lee Ramsey
Prior to seeing this production I had
never heard of the Slocum disaster. The General Slocum, an
excursion boat, burned in 1904 on the East River in full view of
thousands of New Yorkers and was the worst inland waterway disaster in
the history of the world with almost 1100 lives lost. Most of the dead
were German-American immigrants from the Lower East Side, and 185 bodies
were buried in a mass grave in the Lutheran Cemetery in Middle Village,
Queens. In the aftermath of the disaster there was a trial in which no
one would admit any responsibility. The lifeboats, life vests, and fire
hoses on the Slocum were all defective and apparently the captain
and crew were aware of this fact. Also, the state had passed all of the
aforementioned items on their most recent safety inspection.
August 15, 2002
This play is based on the book The Hero of the Slocum Disaster, by Eric Blau, and tells the story of the fictional Edward Knittel who was fifteen at the time of the Slocum fire and who in a matter of minutes lost his mother, brother, two sisters and first love. The play is set in a bar in the Lower East Side in 1984, which the cantankerous Knittel has bought out for one night and paid the patrons (us) each $1000 to listen to him recount the the horrible events of June 15, 1904.
Patrick Tull, who adapted Blau's book with Emily King, plays Knittel in this two-hour one-man show. The show desperately needs to be cut. King’s direction is very static; Tull sits on a bar stool in the upper left corner of the stage for almost the entire first act. There are some nice historical slides of the actual event used, but unfortunately the same ten or so slides are used over and over again. There is also some interesting band organ music provided by Allan Janus and a few other nice period musical excerpts; I would have liked more.
Though Tull plays some 40 characters throughout the evening, there is no physical and very little vocal variety; it’s hard to keep our attention focused. Tull fares better in the shorter second act where he recounts the trial of the Slocum—he finally gets off that stool and there are more distinct differences between his characters.
This really is a very interesting premise for a play. I just wish it had been told it in a more concise manner.