“Wiesenthal” at the Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row (Closed Sunday February 22, 2015)

February 12, 2015 | Off-Broadway | Tags: ,
Written by and Starring Tom Dugan
Directed by Jenny Sullivan
Reviewed by Sander Gusinow
Theatre Reviews Limited

“I have survived them all. If there were any left, they’d be too old and weak to stand trial today. My work is done,” said the real Simon Wiesenthal before he retired from his work as a Nazi Hunter in 2003. But the Wiesenthal given to us by writer/performer Tom Dugan is anything but satiated on the day of his retirement. Simon reminisces with the audience (who play the role of a visiting group of American tourists) about the horrors he endured during the holocaust, his life as an agent of justice, and his anxiety of leaving his work unfinished. As he recalls his momentous life, he’s beleaguered by phone calls about his final target, a retired nazi living in Syria who has eluded him up to this point.

Dugan’s “Wiesenthal” opens with a joke, the kind of joke you’d expect a saucy Jewish grandfather to make. Wiesenthal’s charm and humor, as well constant reminders from his wife to pick up groceries on his way home, act as beacons of refuge from the grisly tales of a nazi hunter. The atrocities of his targets, and the suffering of their victims gives Wiesenthal his drive, all the stories leading to one final, quintessential question Simon promises will be asked and answered by the end of the show.

Director Jenny Sullivan stages the piece in the long and storied tradition of the one person show. Sound and lights shift dramatically when Simon flashes back to his tumultuous past. Sullivan draws a loveable performance from Dugan as he scuttles about the stage, a hurried old man melancholy to let go of his life’s work. Although the direction of the play is amiable, the script, and the character of Wiesenthal in particular, needs clearer navigation.

What “Wiesenthal” can’t overcome is the fact that this tale has been spun and re-spun a thousand times, and by more skilled hands. This Holocaust remembrance piece is stuck playing the familiar notes. Simon Wiesenthal never comes to any new or revelatory conclusions about his journey, and what’s saddest is the fact that he comes so close.

The play flirts with the idea that perhaps Simon is more akin to his nazi enemies than he cares to realize. “I want to give them the same knock on the door they gave my mother” he quips. Wiesenthal’s insistence that the kind of barbaric evil that caused the holocaust is not uniquely German. “The evil is inside of all of us.” The play toys with these darker prospects but never quite embraces them. We’re left with a Simon Wiesenthal intelligent enough to draw such comparisons, but too timid to deal with them. To him, Bin Laden was the new Hitler. In an age where Bill Maher can go on national television and claim Muslims responsible for the world’s ills, the evil may be closer to home than we think.

As a work of remembrance, as a ritual of reverence, “Wiesenthal” succeeds. As a play though, it doesn’t work hard enough. Perhaps freshness is not the play’s intent, but it would have been nice if Simon’s ‘final question’ weren’t such an innocuous letdown. We must always remember the victims of these catastrophic evils. We must always remember the capacity for evil within ourselves. We do not necessarily need to remember “Wiesenthal,” a play that chooses conspicuousness over complexity and nostalgia over nuance.