Evgeny Kissin’s Lacklustre Debut as an Actor in a New York Production of ‘Address Unknown’

Address Unknown. Based on the 1938 book by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor. New York, 2024. Courtesy of Cherry Orchard Festival

Two musical legends deliver a disappointing performance in a one-off production of ‘Address Unknown’ staged recently in New York. Pianist Evgeny Kissin and opera baritone Thomas Hampson starred in this popular short play about human betrayal.

‘Address Unknown’, is a play based on a historical short novel by American writer Kathrine Kressmann Taylor. First published in New York in 1938, it has been reprinted many times and translated into more than twenty languages. Adapted as a film in 1944, it was later produced for the stage and over the past two decades it has been performed all around the world. Kressmann Taylor’s novel is a story of two friends, Martin Schulse, a German who was played by Thomas Hampson, and Max Eisenstein, a German Jew who was played by Evgeny Kissin, his debut on the stage as an actor. Over the course of a few years, between 1932 and 1934 and against the background of the growth of Nazi Germany, the friends, who once saw themselves as brothers, grow apart, setting off on a path of betrayal, revenge, and eventually death.

This powerful and tragic story is told through letters written between Schulse and Eisenstein, in a short text which nevertheless packs punches with strong emotional undercurrents. Yet, structured as a documentary, at times, the story feels like a dry, bureaucratic narrative. Challenging material for the stage, it is a one-act play without any action, and this New York production did not ultimately hit the mark, falling back on a rather flat reading of the letters. Kissin and Hampson read their lines dispassionately giving the audience a flow of words almost as narrators rather than actors and it fell short of unraveling the complex fabric of emotions within the characters.

There were some dramatic moments. The friends proclaim their Bruderschaft in the prologue, and the music of ‘Gaudeamus’, an international anthem for students about brotherhood is a leitmotif which winds through the performance. Shadow theatre and techniques from silent films offset the lack of action on stage in an effort to bring more emotion into the reading. The passage of time is represented by shadows on a screen which walks us from the past and the romantic love between Martin and Max’s sister Griselle, to the present in Griselle’s misadventures and death, and then to the tragic future - Martin’s execution. In the end, however, the theatricality of the set and music, some of which are pieces written and played by Kissin, do little to salvage the play.

Kissin read Kressmann Taylor’s novel as a youth and was deeply affected by it and for Hampson the material felt timeless and had a universal message. Both men had initially planned a stage reading of ‘Address Unknown’ back in 2019, which had to be shelved because of the pandemic. For Kissin, it then evolved naturally into a more sophisticated theatrical project and became a family thing, the production was directed by his sister-in-law, Marianna Arzumanova. Kissin’s wife, actress Karina Arzumanova, who started her theatrical career in Moscow’s experimental Teatr na Iugo-Zapade (Theatre in the South-West), also played three parts in ‘Address Unknown’ as Griselle, Mrs. Fleshman, and Elsa. Very much an initial foray into the theatre for both Kissin and Hampson, it is the first step which will later lead to a reading of the play for the PBS (Public Broadcasting Service).

The conflicts and issues raised in ‘Address Unknown’ are perennial, although have a particularly painful relevance to contemporary audiences. One might ponder the tragic consequences on the once close Russian-Ukrainian brotherhood after Russia’s invasion in Ukraine in 2022 in what some feel is like a civil war. It seems that we did not learn the lessons of history. The key is to start with understanding ourselves or, as Hampson put it, “to discover feelings inside ourselves”, and in ‘Address Unknown’ and the spaces between its lines, we are all put on the spot.

Address Unknown

(based on the 1938 book by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor)

Cherry Orchard Festival

The Town Hall, New York

Premiere: April 17, 2024

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