The Goldman Project
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 3, 2007
The press release blurb for The Goldman Project says that this play by Staci Swedeen "explores the lingering legacy of the Holocaust as an aging survivor is forced to confront the shattering secrets of her long-buried past—secrets that have kept her emotionally distant from her only son."
True, as far as it goes, except for one detail—one enormously crucial detail. The shattering secret turns out to be something that only incidentally has to do with the Holocaust: what happened 50 years before to Naomi Goldman could have (and has) happened to countless other women, of all faiths and races and nationalities, throughout history. It's probably happening today to someone somewhere in the world. Now, this doesn't diminish its tragic nature, but it does make Swedeen's play guilty of a kind of thematic bait-and-switch at best (or dramaturgical dishonesty at worst), and in the process it trivializes the specific issues of the Holocaust and the particular nature of the event that Naomi went through.
(Now, I obviously can't tell you what that particular event was, or else I will spoil the play for you.)
The Goldman Project also suffers from insubstantial writing throughout. It begins with Tony Marks entering his mother's Manhattan apartment with Aviva, an ex-girlfriend he hasn't seen since college. We're immediately told (via a TV news report) that it's 1994, because Richard Nixon has just died. Tony and Aviva banter for a while until his mother, Naomi, gets home; it's clear to us (but not to him, though it should be) that Aviva has an ulterior motive for this reunion after nearly 30 years.
Aviva soon comes clean: she's working on a project to document the testimonies of Holocaust survivors, something that's increasingly urgent because the survivors are aging and dying off. Will Naomi consent to be interviewed? At first mention of the Holocaust, Naomi—who has been heretofore presented as a lively and reasonably intelligent, if baldly stereotyped, Jewish woman—stalks out of the room without a sound. Tony and Aviva talk: Tony says that his parents NEVER discussed their time in the Camps; then Aviva produces a photograph (that we never see) that instantly shocks Tony—this is a photo his father had come across years ago, and it apparently portrays something that happened to Naomi and her sister during the Holocaust that's so painful and horrible that the father never wanted his wife to see it. (Tony hides the photo in his gym bag, thus ensuring that Naomi almost certainly WILL see it, given the clumsy construction of this play.)
Naomi then suddenly returns bearing a box that she dredged from the back of a closet; it contains a treasure trove, the draft of a book that Tony's father was secretly writing about his Holocaust experiences. Then she inexplicably plays matchmaker between Aviva and Tony, though still balking at being interviewed for Aviva's project. And then, in Act Two, she does the interview, though it's never made clear what has caused her to change her mind.
And then, Aviva rather brutally forces Naomi to recall the dreaded (and apparently repressed) memory—the thing that is the crux of the play, that didn't happen during the Holocaust (see above), and that isn't (as far as I can fathom) depicted in the red-herring photo from Act One. As I said, the writing is sloppy.
Anita Keal nevertheless makes the most of the dramatic possibilities of the role of Naomi Goldman, and her performance in this climactic scene is riveting. Bernadette Quigley is less successful with Aviva, who feels fairly heartless and cavalier in her handling of information that is achingly intimate; Tony (a valiant effort by Sam Guncler) asks Aviva what he's supposed to do with this information, and there's no valid possible answer. The Goldman Project, which wants to honor the memory of the Holocaust survivors, instead ends up making us understand why some aspects of history are probably best left alone, at least by those who lived them.