If the past century's most notorious victimization is the Holocaust, among its least noted victims are the Sonderkommando: a group of Hungarian Jews who helped the Nazis exterminate their fellow death-camp prisoners in exchange for better treatment and a few more months alive.
Among the few dramatic portraits of the Sonderkommando are The Grey Zone, a play by the actor Tim Blake Nelson, and Nelson's 2001 film adaptation of the same name. The play premiered off-Broadway in 1996, and is rarely produced; the film, starring Steve Buscemi and Harvey Keitel, is little seen. (In Pittsburgh, it screened for critics, but despite some good reviews nationally it was never released to local theaters.)
The play is a brutally stark piece of writing, based on historical events. In August 1944, at Birkenau, some Sonderkommando plan to blow up the crematorium and escape. But as the revolt takes shape, the men discover a girl who has survived the gas, forcing debate on her fate and prefacing a tragic conclusion.
A week before the Pittsburgh premiere of Grey Zone, in an appropriated Downtown space, rehearsals were held at Friendship's Spinning Plate Artist Lofts, home of Patrick Jordan, the twentysomething artistic director of barebones productions. In the spacious first floor of the former auto dealership, flourescent lights buzzed from the 20-foot ceiling, while the showroom windows looked out on cars whooshing by on streetlit Baum Boulevard.
"Will I be killed?" asks Bingo O'Malley, playing the doctor-prisoner Nyiszli.
"Do you want to be killed?" says Mark Staley, as the Nazi Muhsfeldt.
Off to the side, a gas mask lays on a bomber jacket tossed on the floor. Like most who encounter the play's script, Jordan had to read Grey Zone again -- and again -- to let Nelson's uncompromisingly stark dialogue sink in. The production acquired a veteran cast and a sense of brotherly mission: Three days earlier, Jordan and three other actors playing Sonderkommando -- Randy Kovitz, Gregory Johnstone and Mark Tierno -- shaved their heads together.
"No one lives in this camp without someone dying," says one character in the play. At the rehearsal, director Jason Nodler works on creating the emotional world of this group of prisoners who were known as "the living dead."
"It is crucial to your survival in this world not to feel any of these things happening," says Nodler. "They are not nice guys because they're not allowed to be any more."
Jordan, admittedly, is drawn to dark material. In each of the last two barebones productions (The Glory of Living and Frozen), he's cast himself as a serial killer. A lure of Grey Zone is that, while it's a play set during the Holocaust, it is absent easily drawn moral lines. Even the heroism of the planned revolt is qualified: Would the Sonderkommando rise up if there was any chance they'd live?
"There isn't a more gray story than the one that's being told here," says Nodler.
The Grey Zone Thu., Nov. 2-Nov.19. 121 7th St. (sixth floor, above Bossa Nova), Downtown. Suggested donation: $10-15. 412-363-5847 or www.barebonesproductions.com