“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.
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.
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.
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?
Los Angeles Times photographers document the year in arts and culture.(Los Angeles Times)
When the Mariinsky Ballet performed “Cinderella” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Oct. 8, even the wondrous Diana Vishneva as Cinderella couldn’t bring unity to the movement, but she danced with flawless, fearless authority. Read more >>(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins leaves a rehearsal of his play “Appropriate,” opening Oct. 4 at the Mark Taper Forum, to eat first with a reporter, then later with his agent and some unspecified Hollywood people, who presumably hope to lure him away from the field and city where he has experienced meteoric success in the last five years. Read more >>(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Kerstin Anderson takes charge of Maria von Trapp with a spirit so joyful, a physicality so lithe and coltish, and a soprano so flawlessly soaring that only Frau Schraeder, Capt. Von Trapp’s jilted fiancée (Teri Hansen), could possibly resist her charm. Read the Oct. 1 review >>(Los Angeles Times)
Soprano Abigail Fischer performs Oct. 7 in the opera “Songs from the Uproar” at REDCAT in Los Angeles.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Moisés Kaufman’s muscular revival of “Bent,” which played at the Mark Taper Forum, opening on July 26, renders what many had written off as a parochial drama about the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany into a gripping tale of love, courage and identity. Read review >>(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Malaviki Sarukkai performing at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica on July 19, 2015. Sarukkai is the best-known exponent of South Indian classical dance.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Bramwell Tovey conducts the L.A. Phil with pianist Garrick Ohlsson in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 at the Hollywood Bowl on July 14, 2015.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
Argentine dancer Herman Cornejo performs in the West Coast premiere of “Tango y Yo” as part of the Latin portion of BalletNow.(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
Jake Shears plays Greta in Martin Sherman’s play “Bent” at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles through Aug. 23, 2015.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Dancers rehearse a one-night-only performance choregraphed by Raiford Rogers, one of L.A.'s most-noted choreographers. This year the dance will be to a new original score by Czech composer Zbynek Mateju.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Oscar-winning actor Ben Kingsley in Los Angeles on July 9, 2015.(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Mia Sinclair Jenness, left, Mabel Tyler and Gabby Gutierrez alternate playing the title role in the musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “Matilda” at the Ahmanson Theatre. The three are shown during a day at Santa Monica Pier on June 16, 2015.(Christina House / For The Times)
American Contemporary Ballet Company members Zsolt Banki and Cleo Magill perform a dance routine originally done by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. This performance was presented as part of "Music + Dance: L.A.” on Friday, June 19, 2015.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Miguel, a Grammy-winning guitarist, producer, singer and lyricist, is photographed in San Pedro on Wednesday, June 10, 2015. His new album "Wildheart,” explores L.A.'s “weird mix of hope and desperation.”(Christina House / For The Times)
Los Angeles-born artist Mark Bradford is photographed in front of “The Next Hot Line.” This piece is part of his show “Scorched Earth,” installed at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, June 11, 2015.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
The Los Angeles Opera concluded its season with “The Marriage of Figaro,” with Roberto Tagliavini as Figaro and Pretty Yende as Susanna, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)
“Trinket,” a monumental installation by Newark-born, Chicago-based artist William Pope.L, features an American flag that is 16 feet tall and 45 feet long. The work is on display at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA through June 28.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Alex Knox, from left, Carolyn Ratteray, Lynn Milgrim and Paige Lindsey White in “Pygmalion” in spring 2015 at the Pasadena Playhouse.(Mariah Tauger / For The Times)
On March 17, Google celebrated the addition of more than 5,000 images to its Google Street Art project with a launch party at the Container Yard in downtown Los Angeles.(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
Ric Salinas, left, Herbert Siguenza and Richard Montoya, of the three-man Latino theater group Culture Clash, brought their “Chavez Ravine: An L.A. Revival” to the Kirk Douglas Theatre to mark the group’s 30th anniversary. The play ran from Feb. 4 through March 1.(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
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.
“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.