Review: ‘The Dreyfus Affair’ and the Sound of Anxiety



They battled not just the Army, which considered the Jewish captain a convenient scapegoat, but a virulently anti-Semitic press — David Bengali’s projections include chilling period caricatures and slogans like “France for the French” (still heard at National Front rallies).

The case split families and political parties, and stirred up the press. “What a poignant drama, and what superb characters!” the novelist Émile Zola (Peter Scolari, who played Hannah’s father on “Girls”) ) enthused before going on to pen the pro-Dreyfus editorial “J’accuse…!,” the opening salvo of the modern engaged intellectual.

Zola’s passion provides welcome fire to a show that otherwise hews to a calm, even-keeled tone, exemplified by Mr. von Essen’s sober performance. Much of the emotion is supplied by the musical selections, which both illustrate and comment on the story, and are not necessarily from the actual Dreyfus era — a conceptual gambit that can be just as distracting as illuminating.

Baroque pieces by Jean-Philippe Rameau predate the affair by centuries, and are used in a head-scratching ballet of military officers; Jehan Alain’s pulsating “Litanies,” performed with verve by the organist Parker Ramsay, could have been lifted from the Emerson, Lake & Palmer songbook but are from the 1930s, three decades after Dreyfus was rehabilitated.

The point may be to underline the timelessness of the issues raised by the officer’s persecution. Bracingly, the show reminds us that in 2002, a statue of Dreyfus was defaced in Paris.

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