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by Glenda Frank
“Wiesenthal,” written and performed by Tom Dugan, directed by Jenny Sullivan
Acorn Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St., NYC.
Oct. 24, 2014 - Feb. 22, 2015.
Wed., Fri. and Sat. at 8 PM; Tues. and Thurs. at 7 PM; Sun. at 3 PM; Wed. at 2 PM.
Tickets are $69 at 212-947-8844, www.telecharge.com or the box office. Student tickets, $36.
Great men and women are so rare they seem mythic. Some are born great, their lives determined by their talent. Others, the Bard tells us, have greatness thrust upon them, but that’s not exact. First a need appears, and they enter as though it were a doorway. At any moment, they could easily turn tail and exit. Who would blame them? Joan of Arc. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Simon Wiesenthal.
“Wiesenthal,” an engrossing one-man play written and performed by Tom Dugan, is making its New York debut after a successful run in Los Angeles. It opens late afternoon on the day Simon Wiesental -- the “Jewish James Bond” -- is retiring after bringing over 1000 Nazi criminals to trial. He is a comfortable, gracious host -- a collegiate Mr. Rogers, offering us -- a group of visiting students -- home made cookies. His office at Vienna’s Jewish Documentation Center is cluttered with papers, files, books, and tributes on the wall (set by Beowulf Boritt with lighting by Joel E. Silver).
He begins slowly, about his imprisonment, his shuffle among camps, the death of his young wife. He lived and he found his calling. He was lucky, but he doesn’t say that in words. Once the camp was liberated, he dabbed red ink on his cheeks to make himself look healthy and volunteered as a translator so that he could hear the interrogations.
A friend offered to find him a wife. He mocked him by describing his dead bride as the only woman he would consider, and his friend found a woman who matched the description. His wife too survived. Lucky. And still he dedicated his life to the pursuit of justice. Wiesenthal moved his family back to Austria, a land of Holocaust deniers, who harassed his family. He set up shop as a Nazi hunter, badly funded at first, making himself an outcast and a target. And in doing this, he affirmed the endurance of the Jewish people.
Tom Dugan brings us a Wiesenthal who understood the enormity of the Holocaust. We have all been numbed by the numbers, the stories, even the photographs. But for him, the crimes were fresh discoveries. Tracking Eichmann in cooperation with other groups, he taught himself patience and relied on a wry sense of humor to lighten the days. Watching Eichmann (who implemented the Final Solution) during the trial, he realized the banality of evil. Who could have imagined a monster so ordinary, a bookkeeper! He rallied testimony against Franz Murer, “the Butcher of Vilna,” and was sure he would be found guilty. But Murer was acquitted and the townspeople celebrated. He was proud to have unearthed the name of the soldier who arrested Anne Frank and her family and to have brought him to trial. Each battle, waged on the phone and researching through files, was a personal victory again cosmic anarchy. And then there was Albert, a boy who left a note in a book that kept Wiesenthal going on the bad days.
Dugan’s Wiesenthal never staggers under the weight of his mission. His touch is light. He is interested in his visitors, complains a little about his wife, makes some calls, trying to gather more evidence, and tells remarkable stories. It’s easy to come away from this 90 minute play not just admiring but liking the man. Dugan’s performance is as good as his script, lively and continually interesting. This is a remarkable tribute.
(Wiesental’s “The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness” recounts his experience at Lemberg concentration camp, where a dying SS officer asked Wiesenthal’s pardon for his crime. The Nazis placed a sunflower on the graves of their fallen, but Jews were buried in an unmarked mass grave. At the end of the production, everyone is handed a packet of sunflower seeds. It is a poignant moment.)
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