Simon Wiesenthal (1908-2005) was born in The Ukraine, studied architecture in Prague, and moved to Galicia with his new wife in 1936. Following the German occupation, being Jewish, they were forced to live in the Jewish ghetto, before he was deported to the Janowska concentration camp in 1941. He was later at several other concentration camps including Buchenwald and Mauthausen, where he was liberated by American troops on May 5, 1945. He then aided American authorities in bringing Nazi war criminals to justice and that became his life’s labor. Working from an office in Vienna, he reportedly was responsible for helping to track down more than 800 Nazi war criminals, most notably Adolph Eichmann in 1960.
Wiesenthal is a very well researched and written biographical solo play, in the theatrical tradition of a historical figure appearing alone on stage and addressing the audience to tell his story.
Set in Vienna, in 2003, it takes place in Wiesenthal’s office in Vienna, which serves as The Jewish Documentation Center. The purpose of this one-man operation is sifting through documents and following up on leads of sightings of Nazi war criminals around the world. It is the day of his retirement, and the audience in the theater is treated as if they were a visiting tour group.
For over 90 minutes, his life and career are recounted including Holocaust stories. Overall the show is engaging, though it drags, mainly due to its amiable but less than riveting performance.
Author Tom Dugan has expertly incorporated obviously well-researched historical and biographical details into this dramatization. Theatrical touches besides the audience as a tour group include phone calls for Weisenthal to answer and speak to other people, including comic chats with his wife. There are also flashbacks with other characters brought in.
Mr. Dugan is the author of four other biographical solo plays including ones about Frederick Douglass, Mary Todd Lincoln, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. For his play about Robert E. Lee, he portrayed the Civil War general himself. A prolific film and television actor, he is talented and charming, but his depiction of Simon Wiesenthal does not fully click. He presents him as a folksy joke-telling elderly man with occasional hard edges, and that is mildly entertaining but it just isn’t compelling enough.
With old-age makeup suggesting a man in his 90’s, labored shuffling from one end of the office to another, obvious shaking hands, and a thick Viennese accent that fluctuates, the performance comes across as technically dutiful, rather than as commanding. During the flashback sequences he superficially acts as various other characters, including his daughter, a Nazi official and defense attorney.
Beowulf Boritt’s set is spectacular. It is an expansive duplication of a large, shabby, book crammed office. A desk overflowing with documents, file cabinets, and a large map of Europe with locations of concentration camps are starred, also dominate. The reality and authenticity of the location are sensationally captured.
On a table off to the side, there is a flowerpot with a sunflower that has been drawing focus, and its poignant significance is movingly explained.
Director Jenny Sullivan has staged the show precisely with enough visual texture that does not distract from the narrative. Her work, along with that of lighting designer Joel E. Silver, and sound designer Shane Rettig, is most inspired when rendering the flashbacks showing the past.
“I liked his Hamlet, better than his Wiesenthal,” Wiesenthal here says of the flamboyant, fictionalized portrayal of him by Laurence Olivier, with his old age histrionics in the hyperbolic sci-fi film thriller, The Boys from Brazil (1978). Not mentioned is Ben Kingsley’s excellent, realistic title performance in the cable television docudrama, Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story (1989).
Highly informative, very well constructed, and sharply presented, Wiesenthal lacks the charismatic central performance necessary for it to totally succeed.
Wiesenthal (through February 22, 2015)
The Acorn Theatre, at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-447-7400 or visit http://www.telecharge.com
Running time: approximately 100 minutes with no intermission