BEVERLY HILLS, Calif.—Actor/playwright Tom Dugan portrays Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal in this town’s esteemed Theatre 40, where his play Wiesenthal began in 2011, directed then and again by Jenny Sullivan.
There have been a few changes in the script over the years. Originally it was a two-act play; now (seen May 22) it’s tightened up to 90 minutes, no intermission.
As a playwright Dugan is drawn to one-person shows, among them Robert E. Lee: Shades of Gray, The Ghosts of Mary Lincoln, Oscar to Oscar, and Frederick Douglass: In the Shadow of Slavery. His most recent play, Jackie Unveiled, starring Saffron Burrows, debuted at the Wallis Annenberg Theatre in Beverly Hills two months ago and was reviewed in People’s World.
We encounter the famous Holocaust survivor and the world’s most renowned tracker of Nazi war criminals on his last day at work in his modest Vienna office, where he resettled after the war. He has welcomed a small group of American visitors (that would be us, the audience), among the many he has received from around the world, for a final recounting of some of his most famous cases of bringing evil wrongdoers to justice.
This day takes on a special poignancy because once he closes the door, the entire contents of his work space will be boxed up and shipped to Los Angeles, where the new Museum of Tolerance will resurrect it as a kind of shrine to him and his work. The set works perfectly well, but it is not entirely original, having been adapted for this production from the concurrently running comedy Mr. Pim Passes By by A.A. Milne (of Winnie the Pooh fame), which runs through June 17.
Additional emotional juice is supplied by the conceit that on this last day, Wiesenthal is still making phone calls (today to Damascus), trying to nail a particularly venal child-killer who reinvented himself in Syria as a torture expert to the regime there. He comes this close to nabbing him (we were rooting for him!) but failed to get cooperation at the other end of the line.
The show shuttles back and forth between the sleuth’s past successes—over 1100 Nazis brought to justice—and the present last day on the job. Lighting magic and changes of accent and character portrayal of some of the people Wiesenthal has dealt with, make for smooth transitions.
Wiesenthal was able to identify over 22,000 Nazis presumed still alive after the war, but many simply vanished to the distant corners of the globe under assumed identities. He was able to get trials on only five percent of his quarry. According to Dugan’s Wiesenthal, the West Germans were more cooperative trying former Nazis than the Austrians, who infamously covered up, stalled and dismissed too many cases. Wiesenthal was probably the least surprised person in the world when it eventually came to light that Kurt Waldheim, the former UN secretary general and president of Austria, had been complicit in Nazi war crimes. Out of the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, Austrian Nazis were personally involved in half of their deaths.
Dugan shares with his audience some of Wiesenthal’s philosophy, for example that we do have to make some distinctions between the guilt of common drafted soldiers and the SS commandants in the concentration camps. He grants grace to those few who are known to have refused immoral orders.
Wiesenthal also rejects the concept of collective guilt and takes that one step further: If some people in those dark times (and in all times under various other strongmen besides Hitler) caved to authority, then we are all humanly susceptible to committing egregious offenses in our collaboration, however active or passive, with mass criminality. Murderers can only be contained, he says. They will always be a part of us.
He tries to interpret the appeal of Hitlerism and acknowledges his magnetism and charisma for a post-World War I defeated, hungry, jobless people. The breeding ground for a politics of scapegoating was cultivated long before the gas chambers were built. Wiesenthal also appealed, not very successfully in his own time, for Jews to remember that alongside their six million were another five million also murdered in the camps for religious, eugenic, and political reasons.
As someone who lost 89 members of his family during the Holocaust (although quite miraculously his wife from whom he had had no word since the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising did manage to survive and reunite with him), Wiesenthal is driven by the imperative to remember and honor. His consuming fear is that future generations will not care to continue his work as a warning to all future murderers. “Forgiveness comes from God—in this world I believe in justice.”
On a visit to Israel at the time of the Adolf Eichmann trial in the early 1960s, he feels somewhat offended that as the trial is proceeding people on the street—many of whom were survivors or children of survivors themselves—are going about their daily lives, playing, shopping, laughing. What does it mean for “life to go on?” With some pride he refers to the verdict for Eichmann as “the only civil execution ever carried out in Israel.”
Dugan returned to the stage after the closing (imaginary) curtain to take some questions from the audience. Someone asked if at any time, in the research the playwright did on the subject, did he find that Wiesenthal expressed objection to Israel’s expulsion of so many of the Arab population in the borders of the new country, or killings or other actions against its Arab citizens. Dugan replied that Wiesenthal had some criticisms, as he also had disputes with political figures and with other Holocaust survivors and writers, such as Elie Wiesel, and even with those who run the Simon Wiesenthal Center in L.A. that bears his name, but that for the purposes of the play it was not possible to go into all of that.
Wiesenthal should absolutely be on every high school student’s curriculum. Yet in light of what Dugan has chosen not to include in the play, what we get is a warm, delightful feel-good visit with a sweet, somewhat forgetful, doddering elder who dotes on his grandchildren and tells cute jokes amidst his important tragic stories. Dugan acts the part superbly, mastering the gait and the delivery of an old Central European Jew. It’s hardly as though there aren’t plenty of dark sides to this story. Yet as a play this biodrama travels a sentimental, middle-brow path that makes the character of Simon Wiesenthal less than fully rounded.
Obviously for the kind of audience Wiesenthal seeks, I would not expect blistering criticism of the destruction of Arab villages during the Nakba of 1948: That would defeat the purpose and spirit of the play and threaten to derail it off its designated track. Yet it might have been interesting to explore, for instance, what his differences were with Elie Wiesel, another renowned Holocaust survivor who likewise became a heroic rememberer. It almost felt like this Wiesenthal was an edited-for-school-assembly version of what might have been an even more challenging dramatic work.
Critical praises have come in strongly for Wiesenthal in the years since it debuted: It won the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award, three Ovation Award nominations, and others for New York’s Drama Desk Award and the New York Outer Critics Circle Award.
A 2014 interview with Tom Dugan about Wiesenthal can be viewed here.
Wiesenthal is back for a limited run of only ten performances (eight remaining), all at 7:00 pm through June 13: Tuesdays on May 29, June 5 and 12;. Wednesdays on May 30, June 6 and 13; and Mondays on June 4 and 11. Theatre 40 is located in the Reuben Cordova Theatre, 241 S. Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills 90212. There is ample free parking beneath the venue. The theatre is on the campus of Beverly Hills High School.
Despite my modest cavil about the lovability factor, highly recommended! Especially if you are not so familiar with Wiesenthal, and more especially for younger audiences.
For reservations, call (310) 364-3606, or go online at www.theatre40.org.