Review: 'Seder' at Hartford Stage

Tara Kennedy

  • OnStage Chief Connecticut Critic / Connecticut Critics Circle

Seder, a new play by award-winning playwright Sarah Gancher, tells the story of family dysfunction and how secrets and lies can take their toll.  It also asks the question: Are those who just try to survive – those who keep their heads down, their mouths shut, and follow orders – just as guilty as those who commit the crimes?

The setting is Budapest, Hungary in 2002. It’s the first night of Passover and Margit (Julia Sirna-Frest) has organized a Seder for her family at her mother Erzsike’s (Mia Dillon) house, looking to get back to her Jewish family roots and to impress the new man in her life (an American!), David (Steven Rattazzi). Margit’s brother Laci (Dustin Ingram) is also there. Everyone is on pins and needles when Erzsike’s eldest daughter Judit (Birgit Huppuch) arrives for the Seder, as she has not spoken to her mother in thirteen years.  The secrets of Erzsike’s troubled past, told in a series of flashbacks, are prompted by an exhibit she saw earlier that day: The House of Terror. This political headquarters-turned-museum in downtown Budapest once housed members of the Nazi-affiliated Hungarian Arrow Cross Party, and later the AVO— the secret police of the Hungarian Communist Party (HCP).  Unspeakable horrors took place in the building under both regimes, and when we find out that Judit works at the museum, accusations fly which reveal even more devastating truths about their deceased father, Tamás, (Liam Craig) and Erzsike’s former boss, Attila (Jeremy Webb).

Despite the incredibly serious subject matter of political violence and exploitation, the story is told with humor when appropriate, as well as interesting dramaturgical choices. For example, instead of everyone speaking English with Hungarian accents, the playwright chooses to have the actors speak in English with no accent, as if they are speaking Hungarian. The only trace of it is evident in David’s speech patterns, which helps to bring levity to this weighty tale (hint: there are vowel sounds in Eastern European languages than do not exist in English, with entertaining results).  One tip: Before the show begins, read the notes in the program about the historical background in which the play takes place, especially the timeline in the sidebar; I think having that context would be helpful. (Most of what I know about Hungarian history I learned from the pop-rock musical Chess.)

Ms. Dillon shines as the tragically complex Erzsike.  This role allows Ms. Dillon to demonstrate her fantastic acting range. Her transitions between flashbacks of 40+ years seem effortless: with only the release of a bobby pin, she is 18 again, and we believe every genuine second.  Ms. Huppuch is passionate and driven as Judit, the absent, rebellious daughter, while Ms. Sirna-Frest strikes an excellent balance as Margit, the self-help novice trying to maintain peace in the house. Mr. Rattazzi is a great comic foil as David, trying to assist in reconciling Erzsike and Judit.  As Laci, Mr. Ingram provides  sardonic humor while demonstrating that he cares about the political situation in Budapest more than audience initially realizes. Mr. Webb is coolly terrifying as Erzsike’s boss, Attila, and Mr. Craig is perfect as the seemingly inept, alcoholic Tamás.

The set design by Nick Vaughan is simple and effective—the home is a series of rooms without walls, with a wall of photographs that is a display in the House of Terror, significant to the storyline. Sound is critical in this play, marking transitions from past to present, and the startling sound effects (designed by Jane Shaw) are successful in their intended response: I jumped out of my seat at the first cue. Lighting by Marcus Dilliard also serves a crucial role in the shifts from the past to the present-day. The last scene in the show combines these three elements to create a poignant picture that demonstrates that the cycles of political corruption are not over for Hungary.

If you’re a fan of O’Neill and Shepard, then this family drama is definitely in your wheelhouse. It’s grim and disturbing, with just the right amount of levity to keep the audience laughing, even if it’s sometimes darkly funny.

Photo: John Wolke