Music Box Theatre, (7/11/2005 - 8/14/2005)

First Preview: Jul 08, 2005
Opening Date: Jul 11, 2005
Closing Date: Aug 14, 2005
Total Previews: 4
Total Performances: 35

Category: Play, Solo, Original, Broadway

Opening Night Production Staff

Theatre Owned / Operated by The Estate of Irving Berlin and The Shubert Organization (Gerald Schoenfeld: Chairman; Philip J. Smith: President; Robert E. Wankel: Executive Vice President)

Produced by Bill Kenwright and Thelma Holt

Originally produced by The National Theatre of Great Britain

Based on "If This Is a Man" by Primo Levi; Adapted by Antony Sher; Music by Jonathan Goldstein; English translation by Stuart Woolf

Directed by Richard Wilson

Scenic Design by Hildegard Bechtler; Costume Design by Hildegard Bechtler; Original Lighting Design: Paul Pyant; Lighting Recreated by: David Howe; Sound Design by Rich Walsh; Assistant Lighting Design: Jared Sayeg; Assistant Sound Design: Christopher Cronin and Bill Lewis

General Manager: Richards / Climan, Inc.; Company Manager: Brig Berney

Technical Supervisor: Larry Morley; Production Supervisor: Ernest Hall; Stage Manager: David Hyslop and Thomas Vowles

Cello: Robin Thompson-Clarke; Trumpet: Paul Beniston; Piccolo: Andy Findon; Percussion: Tristan Fry; Tuba: Oren Marshall; Accordion: Ian Watson

Press Representative: Philip Rinaldi Publicity; Logo and Design: Frank Verlizzo; Marketing: Leanne Schanzer Promotions; Advertising: The Eliran Murphy Group, Ltd.; Photographer: Ivan Kyncl

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Opening Night Cast

Antony SherPrimo Levi

Awards and Nominations

Drama Desk Award

winner 2006 Outstanding Solo Performance [winner] 

Antony Sher


New York Daily News: "A measure of the Holocaust"

Of the survivors of Auschwitz who wrote about their experiences, most were Jews from the shtetls of Eastern Europe, a rural world that had changed little in hundreds of years.

Primo Levi, the subject of Sir Antony Sher's stunning one-person play, "Primo," could not have been more different.

Born in 1919 to an Italian-Jewish family in Turin, he was from a middle-class, highly assimilated family and had been trained as a chemist.

When, after a five-day trip squeezed into a cattle car, he stepped into the death camp in late winter of 1944, he arrived at a "lucky" moment.

As he explained in the book on which this play is based (published in the U.S. as "Survival in Auschwitz"), the war was going badly for the Germans. They were letting their prisoners live longer to use as slave labor.

Even luckier, his skills as a chemist enabled him to spend his last few months in the camp in a chemical factory, where the inmates were treated better.

After all, they were working alongside members of the Master Race, who might have been offended had they had to confront the dehumanized creatures in the rest of the camp.

His scientific training guided Levi's responses to what he lived through. In a sense, he was observing an experiment. The Germans had calculated not just the most efficient way to exterminate millions of people, but how to disintegrate the humanity of their prisoners.

One way was to force them to walk in ill-fitting wooden shoes. Even if they learned to move, their feet became swollen and infected, bringing them to the hospital wards, where their inability to recover led them inevitably to the gas chambers. Here, too, Levi was lucky. His feet survived, and so did he.

Most accounts of Auschwitz present horrors too great for us to absorb. The "parable" of the shoes makes the unimaginable understandable.

Sher, an actor we see too seldom here (I was lucky enough to see his astounding "Richard 111" 20 years ago in London), never sensationalizes Levi's writing.

Except for a moment of anger at a fellow inmate's prayer, his tone is detached and awestruck, as if, even decades later. he is still numbed and in wonder at what he has witnessed.

He also conveys the gentleness that is my own memory of Levi, whom I interviewed a few years before he killed himself in 1987.

Hildegard Bechtler's simple set, in shades of gray, hauntingly lit by Paul Pyant; simple, evocative music by Jonathan Goldstein, and subtle sound effects by Rich Walsh enrich this powerful portrait of a soul in a vew modern hell.

New York Daily News

New York Post: "'Primo' is Prime Quality"

In every way - as a human document, as a theatrical statement, as a piece of indelibly powerful acting – Sir Antony Sher makes "Primo" an extraordinary experience.

Opening last night at the Music Box Theatre for a sadly limited run (through Aug. 7), it casts a light on the Holocaust that is unblinking and convincing, especially in its understated naturalness.

Here is epic pain shaped into the understandable dimension of humanity - the deep-etched story of one man's survival, fortuitous perhaps more than heroic, and yet still heroic in its ability to hold on to life against the cruelest odds.

It is the story of the Italian-Jewish chemist Primo Levi, captured in 1943 while a member of the anti-Fascist resistance and sent to Auschwitz, a German death camp in occupied Poland.

Sir Antony - looking like any mid-century European intellectual in a trim goatee, and dressed simply in trousers and an old cardigan, shirt and tie - seems totally spontaneous against a bleak but neutral setting that suggests a prison chamber of dark memory.

He doesn't appear to be acting in any customary concept of the term -there is no sense of interpretation here, only the unbearable heaviness of being, as he offers witness to a Kafka-esque world of unpredictable horror.

The British actor himself adapted the play from Levi's dispassionate 1947 memoir, "If This Is a Man," and Levi's words, as originally translated into English by Stuart Woolf, come across as the calm voice of reason in a babble of insanity.

The play's almost serene remembrance of horrors past conjures up memories of the interviewing technique Claude Lanzmann used in his masterly film of concentration camp survivors, "Shoah."

Here, the emotional, near-poetic fabric of Levi's text - revealing itself in simple phrases like "as naked as worms" to describe the first time the prisoners, shorn of all body hair, were forced to strip - has the added resonance of art, though it never strays from the truth.

Originally performed at London's Royal National Theatre, the entire staging - Richard Wilson's seamlessly invisible direction, the awesome blank-faced designs by Hiidegard Bechtler, Paul Pyant's lighting, Jonathan Goldstein's Ernest Bioch-like music and Rich Walsh's eerily terrifying sound design -emerges as a single statement.

Still, the final triumph is Sir Antony's gentle description of the face of evil. As a virtuoso feat, it has a lot in common with Alec McCowen's much earlier exploration of goodness in "The St. Mark's Gospel."

Perhaps because evil is more compelling than goodness - and the evil that betrayed Germany into vicious sadism is still horribly relevant today - it will be Sher's calm exposition of man's inhumanity to man that will enter the annals of theatrical legend.

New York Post

Newsday: "Ordinary details, yet a potent Holocaust saga"

The man in the promotional photo for "Primo" leans against a gray wall with a faraway look in his eyes and a peculiar placement of his hands. He is a neatly groomed, middle-aged fellow, dressed in the sweater-vest and tie of a professional, perhaps an academic. His hair and beard - more pepper than salt - have been carefully, almost rakishly trimmed.

But what about those hands? The left one is over his chest, almost in the position of a pledge. The right, the one over his crotch, suggests a more instinctive gesture of shame and fear. Oh, and if you study that arm held uneasily near his heart, tattooed numbers tell the story beyond the businesslike blue shirt.

Such is the understated power of "Primo," the 90-minute solo that actor Antony Sher adapted with mesmerizingly ordinary detail from the 1947 memoir by the Italian chemist and Holocaust survivor, Primo Levi.

The piece - more narrative docudrama than conventional theater - opened last night at the Music Box Theatre after sold-out runs at London's National Theatre, the West End and in Cape Town, where the South African-born actor had not performed since he left 35 years ago.

Sher, whose 1997 Broadway debut as artist Stanley Spencer emphasized a furious,  almost effusively internalized energy, will have none of that showiness in this guide  through the unspeakable but well-documented level of hell. Indeed, though stories of the camps now have the familiar churning of myth, Sher's respect for Levi's  straightforward and meticulously-detailed observations is both admirable and awesome.

As a witness, Levi can still surprise us. When he was herded into a train from Turin  in the last year of the war, the name Auschwitz meant nothing to him. Once there,  he was struck by the almost "comic berets and long striped overcoats." The first -  time he was beaten, he had never known man to "hit without anger." He explains the importance of shoes to survival and the arrival of spring as "one fewer enemy" in a world in which the words for hunger and cold were inadequate.

Oddly, the unsaid in Richard Wilson's production lingers beyond the words. Levi is wearing glasses at the beginning and, behind them, Sher's alert eyes seem never to stop looking around. After an SS man orders the new arrivals to undress and "make a bundle of our clothes," Sher removes his glasses and doesn't wear them again until the end of the play. The eyes stop moving. We don't notice until later that Levi talks in the past tense until the train stops and he is chosen for slave labor on the platform. From there on, we're stuck with him in his now.

Except for his eyeglasses, there is no costume change to telegraph the moment. Sher does travel from gray wall to gray wall (costumes and sets by Hildegard Bechtler). But only once does he address the audience directly. It is after being stripped as "naked as worms" and sheared. He asks us to "think of the value of your smallest possessions ... Think of this. Then you can fully understand the term, "extermination camp."

Every so often, a prison band plays a surreal popular tune or a march. Less effective are the overlytheatrical shadows and mournful music, which cheapen the quality of the manipulation. Levi, who committed suicide in 1987, should be beyond special effects.


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