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Theatre of Cruelty: “Our Class” received

As audience members file into BAM Fisher’s Fishman Space and wait for “Our Class” to start, a man can be seen writing names in white chalk on a massive blackboard. It looks like a supersize version of the kind that might be in a classroom, but the list of names here are followed by birth and death dates. We are immediately, chillingly aware of each character’s life expectancy. So when we are introduced to Zygmunt (Elan Zafir), for example, we know that he was born in 1918 and lived to see 1977. On the other hand, Jakub (Stephen Ochsner) will die when he’s about 22, in 1941.

That last year is the tragic turning point of Tadeusz Slobodzianek’s play, which premiered in London in 2009 and, under the direction of Igor Golyak, is finally making a belated New York debut as part of the Under the Radar festival.

Inspired by a real pogrom in Jedwabne, the show pivots on a day in 1941 when inhabitants of a Polish village killed hundreds of Jews. Many of the victims were burned alive in a barn. Afterward, the perpetrators claimed the Nazis were to blame for the massacre, a charade that went on for decades.

The play (adapted by Norman Allen from Catherine Grovesnor’s literal translation) follows 10 classmates — five Jewish and five Catholic — through the years. One, Abram (Richard Topol), left in 1937 for New York, where he became a rabbi, but the others stayed put. Slobodzianek skilfully tracks people and events, giving the show a suspenseful but always humane urgency.

Friendships ceased to matter during World War II, as classmate turned against classmate. Rysiek (José Espinosa) was among those lending a murderous hand on that fateful day, and he looked on as Jakub’s throat was slit open. “They were my neighbors,” Dora (Gus Birney) said. “I knew them. Just watching. Making jokes.” She and her baby died in the barn. Rachelka (Alexandra Silber) was Jewish and about 21, but, we know from that blackboard, died in 2002. How she made it through is a testament to the grim decisions one has to make in a war.

It is tricky to bring this kind of tragic story to the stage, and the well-acted production from the Mart Foundation and Golyak’s Arlekin Players Theater is artistically ambitious. That is not a surprise. Golyak (“The Orchard” at Baryshnikov Arts Center) is among the most inventive directors working in the United States. His problem is one of abundance, though: He can have too many ideas and has a hard time editing them.

The excessive stage business in “Our Class” often distracts from the story. Golyak unnecessarily frames the show as a play reading, for instance, with the actors in contemporary clothing, perhaps to suggest the timelessness of the issues. Mercifully he drops that conceit quickly enough.

But then some scenes are overloaded with symbolism, as when the dying Jakub perilously and distractingly hangs upside down from a ladder, or when the characters draw faces on balloons, which then float up to the ceiling. Those could be powerful gestures on their own, but collectively they amount to a kind of aesthetic distancing, as if Golyak felt the audience could not withstand the story’s full horror. Tellingly, the most wrenching scenes are the more minimal ones, as when Dora quietly sings to her baby. It’s a lullaby, and a goodbye, the end of two lives and the end of a world.