Advertisement
Entertainment & Arts

Critic’s Choice: ‘Wiesenthal’ documents one man’s human frailty, tireless dedication

Tom Dugan in ‘Wiesenthal’

Tom Dugan in “Wiesenthal.”

(Carol Rosegg)

“My wife is waiting at our front door for me to finally come home from the war,” says Simon Wiesenthal as he leaves his office for the last time in Tom Dugan’s beautifully written and performed one-man bio-play “Wiesenthal,” now at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.

Simon Wiesenthal officially retired in 2003 from a lifetime of Nazi hunting, having tracked down and brought to justice more than 1,000 war criminals after World War II. He died two years later at 96.

SIGN UP for the free Essential Arts & Culture newsletter >>

But as Dugan makes clear in his nuanced, endearing portrayal, even if Wiesenthal did remember his wife’s request to pick up milk on his way home from that last day of work, he never really left the war behind.

Advertisement

Heroic stories, representing order in a chaotic world, are deeply soothing to the human soul. In real life, Wiesenthal had and still has his detractors: Some say he was egotistical and took credit for others’ work.

 

But onstage here, puttering around his office at the Vienna Jewish Documentation Center (a stuffy book-lined sanctuary, dominated by a giant map, by set designer Beowulf Boritt) in his rumpled suit (by costume designer Alex Jaeger), with his pill bottles and his heavy Austrian accent, he conveys an inspiring mixture of human frailty and tireless, superhuman dedication to justice.

After barely surviving World War II, transferred from camp to camp, Wiesenthal spent the rest of his life chasing tenuous wisps of clues, in a chillingly discouraging atmosphere, to run down former Nazis of every rank: Adolf Eichmann, Franz Stangl, the lowly policeman who arrested Anne Frank.

Advertisement

With Wiesenthal on the case, we could go to sleep certain that all the bad guys would be rounded up, that the victims of the Holocaust would be remembered and that “the human savage… behind the wafer-thin layer of civilization” would be, if not stamped out, at least contained.

But there’s the rub, and the tension in this play, which premiered at L.A.’s Theatre 40 in 2011 and subsequently had a successful off-Broadway run: Wiesenthal can’t keep it up forever. Who will carry out his mission when he is gone?

Ruefully sifting through a handful of medals, he calls himself “five percent hero” because he brought only 5% of the Nazis to justice. On his last day in the office, he’s still working to extradite Alois Brunner from Syria.

We get a taste of his crafty detective work, which brings to mind a Yiddish Columbo. Telephoning a hotel clerk in Damascus, he introduces himself as Dr. Richard Kimball (the character in “The Fugitive”). After hanging up, he mutters things like, “What a yutz.” (He also does a good Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator.)

Admittedly, as in so many one-man shows, the setup is a bit gimmicky. We, the audience, are apparently American tourists visiting Wiesenthal’s office, the last of many groups to pass through and hear his life story. He tells us where the restroom key is (attached to a rubber duckie), asks for shows of hands, offers us grapes from a ziplock baggie.

But the history museum atmosphere doesn’t detract from the play’s persuasively structured, engrossing storytelling. Stagy though it may be, the format allows Dugan ample opportunities to display the charming character he has created, and to slip into other personae at critical points in his narrative.

The stories Wiesenthal has to tell are often heartbreaking, but Dugan and director Jenny Sullivan resist the temptations of overacting. The tone of subtle wit and steely stoicism enhance the poignancy of Wiesenthal’s experiences, achievements and immense, heroic ambition.

Advertisement

“Wiesenthal,” Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Lovelace Studio Theater, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills. 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 8. $40-$50. (310) 746-4000 or www.thewallis.org. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.


Newsletter
Get our daily Entertainment newsletter
Advertisement