Ticket Holders LA Review of Wiesenthal

In Tom Dugan’s riveting solo show Wiesenthal, unrelenting Nazi war criminal hunter Simon Wiesenthal packs up his cluttered office at Vienna’s Jewish Documentation Center for the last time. At age 94, it’s time to stop and go home to his patient wife Cyla, who has been waiting for her husband’s personal World War II to end for the past 58 years.

It’s a tough day for the great man, someone who proved you don’t need to be son of Zeus and carry a big stone hammer or wear tights and a cape to be a hero; some are soft-spoken ancient old men with an obsessive mission to right some of the catastrophic wrongs foisted on our world in the name of humanity. “I have been called the Jewish James Bond,” Wiesenthal quips to the audience with a signature glint in his eye. “Must be my sex appeal.”

Dugan’s Wiesenthal, directed as it has been from the start by LA treasure Jenny Sullivan and with the playwright appearing as his subject, has currently returned for a limited number of weekday-night performances to Theatre 40, where it originally debuted in 2011.

Since it’s quiet but auspicious beginning, Dugan has toured from coast-to-coast in his piece, receiving critical praise and prestigious nominations for both Drama Desk and outer Critics Circle Awards during its off-Broadway debut in 2014-15. Along the way, it has also been seen locally at the Rubicon in Ventura in 2012 and back home to Beverly Hills at the Wallis in 2015 but, due to some unfortunate scheduling conflicts, this is a first for me. How grateful I am to finally have gotten to see it.

Unlike too many other solo writer-performers, Dugan is a facile veteran performer bringing a multi-faceted, clearly difficult, and often humorous man to life with uncanny ease. Facing an imaginary group of American tourists visiting his office for a last fundraising tour, between asking if he’s shown us the restroom key and offering grapes in a ziplock bag to folks in the front row, Dugan’s Wiesenthal does his best to joke and lighten the often-heartrending task of discussing his inexhaustible lifelong mission

As he wanders around his half-packed office stuffing historic documents and bittersweet personal memories into cardboard boxes to be sent to and curated at LA’s Museum of Tolerance, he clumsily begins with that terrible old joke about a man declaring to a punk rocker that he once fucked a peacock (Dugan using “made love” in deference either to Wiesenthal or his Theatre 40 audience) and wonders if the kid might be his son. With a long sigh, he then refers to the tale he is about to relate as “Simon Wiesenthal’s Greatest Hits,” commenting that people who laugh together sometimes forget to kill one another.

But despite the man’s insistence to those gathered that his point in telling his story is not to produce tears but to produce knowledge, there’s no way to experience this event without being profoundly moved. Not only did the eager young architectural student endure being “laughed at as one of those filthy subhumans” forced to live in the cramped Jewish ghetto, he then was forced to survive the most horrifying disgrace to humanity of the last century, where between he and his wife they lost every one of their 89 relatives to Hitler’s insanity.

Wiesenthal himself was shuttled between four different concentration camps during the Holocaust and personally lived through a death march to Chemnitz, details of which, including being starved and suffering untreated illnesses during his incarceration, are relived for us in painful detail. Existing in half-consciousness close to the brink of death, he remembers lying on a concrete slab staring up at the “stars of justice and tolerance” in the night sky fading away before his weary eyes.

Author of several one-person shows (including the fascinating Jackie Unveiled, which debuted at the Wallis recently also directed by the brilliant Sullivan), after all these years touring in this piece, Dugan still fits comfortably in the aged skin of the heavy Austrian-accented Wiesenthal, yet keeps his mission surprisingly fresh, remarkably able to navigate morphing into other characters in the man’s long life with lightning quick alacrity.

Perhaps the most haunting moments come when the fragile and burned-out old man–Wiesenthal would die only two years after this point in his journey—extracts a tattered piece of yellowing paper out of his wallet and tenderly unfolds it to reveal a note left in a discarded bible by an 11-year-old boy before he was carted away by the stormtroopers and, surely, to his untimely death.

The boy asks only to be remembered, writing, “Now that you’ve read this, I am no longer dead,” adding that he begs the reader to keep his memory alive. “I trust you,” the young man named Albert declares and, through Simon Wiesenthal’s tireless years of scouring the world to bring all those hidden Nazis to justice, he never forgot—and now, he tells us, he believes the boy will always be a part of us, too.

Though we might occasionally squirm in our seats while hearing about this legendary man’s courageous struggle, there’s special meaning today in the midst of our current political debacle, something that had not yet reared its ugly head and embarked on its soulless mission to destroy our country and its integrity back in 2011 when Wiesenthal first debuted. We are reminded by Tom Dugan’s improbable hero that if we don’t try to talk about how this atrocity was allowed to happen some 75 years ago, “it can happen again now.”

Amen to that.

THROUGH JUNE 13: Theatre 40, 241 S. Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills. 310.364.3606 or www.theatre40.org