Chilling WWII drama ‘Canned Goods’ premieres in Rahway; more shows planned for Basking Ridge

canned goods review


From left, Simon Feil, Steven Rattazzi, Ken King and Richard Hollis co-star in The American Theater Group’s production of “Canned Goods.”

Erik Kahn’s new play “Canned Goods” takes its title from the code name that Nazi soldiers used for prisoners under their control during an operation that took place in the time directly before the start of World War II, in 1939. And what an appropriately dehumanizing code name it is.

Based on historical events, “Canned Goods” — which The American Theater Group premiered last weekend at The Hamilton Stage at The Union County Performing Arts Center in Rahway, and will present at The Sieminski Theater in Basking Ridge, May 16-19 — is a chilling depiction of unthinkable evil in action, and a reminder that cunningly crafted fake news is nothing new to the present era. And with anti-Semitism and fascism on the rise in many countries around the world, it couldn’t be more necessary. Director Charlotte Cohn helps give the production a bold, direct feel that keeps you hanging on every word.


Ken King in “Canned Goods.”

The 85-minute, one-act play is set mostly in a jail to which Franciszek Honiok (Richard Hollis) — who was born in Poland but is now living in Germany and working as a farmer there — has been sent, for reasons that are a mystery to him. At first, his primary concern is that his farm animals will be cared for, in his absence.

Two other prisoners are being kept in the jail, in an adjacent cell: Szymon Birnbaum (Simon Feil), a Jewish professor of religion who had been moved to the jail from the Dachau concentration camp; and Walter Kruger (Steven Rattazzi), a non-Jewish German who was also at Dachau, after being arrested for theft. They don’t know why they are there, either, or why they are being treated surprisingly well — the food is much better than it was at Dachau. But they do know that they will play a part in some kind of operation with the code name Grandmother Died.

Birnbaum and Honiok suspect the worst, and assume their lives will soon come to an end; “We’re being toyed with, like three mice held for the moment under the paw of a cat,” says Honiok. Kruger, a Hitler loyalist and Jew hater, holds out hope that his life could be spared, after the operation is over.

The play’s unforgettable villain is Alfred Naujocks (Ken King), a major in Hitler’s SS organization. He is mostly polite, and even charming at times, to the prisoners. But when he shows his dark side, as he does when Holiok annoys him by repeatedly asking to see a priest, it stings. Holiok is the play’s central character, but Naujocks rules over this little corner of the world with calm cruelty, and an imperious snap of his fingers.

The cultured, philosophical Birnbaum and the obsequious Kruger are fictional, but Naujocks and Honiok are based on real people. Near the end of the play, King reads from Naujocks’ testimony at the Nuremberg trials.


Richard Hollis in “Canned Goods.”

Donning a swastika armband and changing his voice into a menacing growl, Honiok also plays Hitler, in brief excerpts from his speeches. A fifth actor, Dalton Gorden, plays the prisoners’ guard (fictional) as well as two SS officials (based on real people).

Scenic designer Ant Ma hangs a number of soldier’s uniforms above the actors. They remain there, ominously, as Honiok, Birnbaum and Kruger wonder what is in store for them.

Using The Ink Spots’ sentimental 1939 hit “If I Didn’t Care” to underscore the play’s darkest moment, and Vera Lynn’s longing, lushly romantic 1939 ballad “We’ll Meet Again” as closing music, seemed a little heavy-handed to me. This kind of ironic twist has been done too many times to really be effective.

I don’t think I am giving too much away by adding that Naujocks never receives sufficient punishment for his actions. “After a few years in a Danish prison, I was allowed to live out my life, after the war, in peace,” he tells us. “Why? Well, you see, there were too many of us. They couldn’t hang us all. …

“Some might say I am still right here among you, never to leave.”

American Theater Group will present “Canned Goods” at The Sieminski Theater in Basking Ridge, May 16-19. Visit


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