Simon Wiesenthal, an Austrian Jew who barely survived the death camps, cast himself as our conscience. Playwright and actor Tom Dugan casts himself as Wiesenthal, and we completely believe him.
We warm to Dugan, not just because the actor has shaved much of his head to enhance a physical likeness to the Nazi hunter, but because he genuinely inhabits this still-passionate, 95-year-old firebrand.
The play’s setting is oblique. We, the audience, are not New Yorkers straggling into the wonderful Acorn Theater on Theater Row on an early November Tuesday. No, we are the last gaggle of ‘groups’ to visit Wiesenthal in his office in Austria on his last day “in the business” — the business of remembering the eleven million who perished.
Dugan’s taken the grim indictment of the Holocaust, specifically the dispiriting Hannah Arendt “banality-of-evil” view — that most of the Nazis were accountants or shopkeepers “simply following orders” — and flipped it, writing an encomium to credit an ordinary, though hardly banal, man, doing extraordinary things.
Dugan hones the ghastly, oft-told tale. We know about the human hair collected, the three hundred pounds of wedding rings, the one hundred truckloads of shoes. Decades of repetition of the grim images force them to linger in our memories. Is it still possible to shock? While including the touchstones of the horror — Anne Frank among them — Dugan uses one specific example I’d not heard before (which I leave for you to discover). It is stunning and memorable and a marker of the literary economy of this writer.
The character he writes is built to reflect the polished, strategic player Wiesenthal became on the world stage — certainly not slick, just wily. This Wiesenthal is an endearing old man with a bad leg and an iron backbone, who is continually sifting options of just how far to go down any particular rabbit hole, as he measures the ‘time left’ to him.
All that said, don’t go expecting a punishing, “god-how-depressing” evening. It’s not. As Wiesenthal’s character says: “You cannot hate all day, just as you cannot eat all day; you get full.” There is humor here, and charm, and one very, very well worn joke.
Small touches, including an understated use of audio, lend immediacy to the familiar story. We hear people trapped in cattle cars plead for water. At least as powerful, we hear a dispassionate Eichmann on the stand, defending himself.
The busy set, Wiesenthal’s office, which he’s packing up to send to a museum, showcases the breadth of his work — files on the 1100 criminals he helped track and bring to justice. As a dramatic setting, director Jenny Sullivan gets enormous mileage out of nooks and crannies, dramatic lighting, and a tissue box center stage.
It takes a solid script, a fine actor, a disciplined director to make one man on a stage for 90 minutes in a New York theater compelling. Wiesenthal works.
Wiesenthal – By Tom Dugan; directed by Jenny Sullivan
WITH: Tom Dugan.
Designed by Beowulf Boritt, Alex Jaeger did the costume, Joel E. Silver handles lighting and Shane Rettig the sound design. Katherine Barrett is the stage manager. Katharine Farmer is the A.D. while Nate Fessler is the lighting and audio tech.
Presented by Daryl Roth, Karyl Lynn Burns, Catherine Adler, Suzy and Burton Farbman, and Anne and Michael Towbes. At the Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, Manhattan. Through February 2015. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.