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Review: ‘The Berlin Diaries’ at FAU’s Theatre Lab is ‘a master class in acting’

Families are complicated, composed of people who may have little in common but bloodlines, sometimes weighted down by secrets, lies, myths. Add to that mix a horrific event, so horrible it’s hard to wrap one’s mind around, and the complications grow.

Family dynamics are the foundation of the deeply moving, highly effective “The Berlin Diaries,” receiving a first-rate production through Sunday, Dec. 10, at Theatre Lab, on the campus of Boca Raton’s Florida Atlantic University.

“The Berlin Diaries” is an autobiographical play written by Andrea Stolowitz, who began working on the piece several years ago while researching her family history in Berlin. The play is making its world premiere at Theatre Lab, which is one of the theaters that helped developed the piece; it’s part of the National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere and is expected to be independently produced at two other U.S. theaters in the coming months.

The story revolves around the diary kept by Andrea Stolowitz’s great-grandfather, Max Cohnreich, a German Jew who wrote the journal for his descendants after escaping to New York City in 1939. A copy was sent to Stolowitz after her mother donated the diary to the United States Holocaust Museum Archives.

But Stolowitz didn’t immediately look at the diary. Instead, it languished, sealed in its original envelope, on a top shelf of her office, where it remained even after she and her family eventually moved from North Carolina to Portland, Ore., where she is a professor of theater. Eventually, she began to read the diary, realizing this could be the basis of a play. This took her down a rabbit hole of research, leading her to Berlin to research her genealogy and tell the story of her unknown ancestors and how they survived the Holocaust.

She learned her family’s story was fraught with complications. Those complications — differences in politics and religion, personal choices, plain neglect — have been the foundation of myriad movies, books and plays. But Stolowitz finds different reasons. Her timeline moves from the past, the present and the future.

“The Berlin Diaries” is a fascinating piece of theater, brought to life by two expert actors, Avi Hoffman and Niki Fridh, and skillfully directed by Matt Stabile, producing artistic director of Theatre Lab.

Avi Hoffman and Niki Fridh play 14 characters each in "The Berlin Diaries." (Morgan Sophia Photography/Courtesy)
Avi Hoffman and Niki Fridh play 14 characters each in “The Berlin Diaries.” (Morgan Sophia Photography/Courtesy)

During the approximately 95-minute play, Hoffman and Fridh play 14 characters each, including Stolowitz as well as her great-grandfather, mother, uncle, aunt and a cousin who immigrated to South Africa, among others.

Hoffman and Fridh tackle this exhausting cast of characters with verve, seamlessly moving in and out of the various characters across several locations including New York, Oregon, and Germany. At times, they simultaneously play the same character with one starting a sentence, the other finishing it. While this might sound confusing, Hoffman and Fridh make these moments perfectly logical. The power of Stolowitz’s writing coupled with Stabile’s smart direction and the astute acting chops of Hoffman and Fridh make “The Berlin Diaries” a master class in acting.

Hoffman and Fridh also tackle different accents, including various American and German speakers and a couple of elderly characters, guided by the expertise of dialect coach Kathryn L. Johnston.

Alyiece Moretto-Watkins’ effective scenic design contains an array of clocks, photographs, a phonograph, antique suitcases, old-fashioned lamps and delicate cups and creamers, all representing past lives with the stage framed in grey. The muted colors of Dawn C. Shamburger’s costumes for Hoffman and Fridh add to the tone, as do Matt Corey’s sound and Eric Nelson’s lighting design. However, the projections showing excerpts from the diary are too far off to the side, making them almost impossible to see, even from the second row, center, seats.

“The Berlin Diaries” fits well with Theatre Lab’s mission of producing new works.


WHAT: Theatre Lab presents “The Berlin Diaries”

WHEN: Runs through Sunday, Dec. 10, but additional performances may be added because the production’s opening was delayed a week

WHERE: Theatre Lab, 777 Glades Road, Florida Atlantic University campus, Boca Raton

COST: $35-$45

INFORMATION: 561-297-6124; fauevents.com

A version of this review ran in floridatheateronstage.com.

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