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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Tom Dugan
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Not all superheroes wear brightly colored tights and a cape—sometimes they're balding, wearing glasses, and sporting humble, rumpled suits. At any rate, that's the conclusion Tom Dugan wants you to draw from his one-man play Wiesenthal, which just opened at the Acorn Theatre: In it, Dugan plays Simon Wiesenthal, a simple, unassuming Austrian Jew who lost most of his family in the holocaust and spent the next six decades of his life tracking down all of the Nazi war criminals who were still alive.

Is this story about a man whose method of tracking down and, in many cases, bringing to justice (or at least public accountability) figures as towering as Adolf Eichmann and Kurt Waldheim, seldom involved little more than sending letters or picking up a phone exciting in the traditional sense? No. But thanks to Dugan's on-point writing and acting, and the no-nonsense direction of Jenny Sullivan, you'll be riveted through each syllable in 90 minutes of play time that spell out just how such a theatrical hagiography should be done.

Even so, there are clich├ęs a-plenty to be found here. The audience plays the role of the final tour group who'll visit Wiesenthal's Vienna office, on his last day before retirement. He'll make a few sporting attempts to track down one errant Nazi before his time is up, so you can get an idea of his methods. (Primary among those here: pretending to be a doctor on the phone and and lying about a prescription to get an address for fugitive Alois Brunner. A delicious added detail is that the phone he uses is bright crimson, as if a nod to the 1960s Batman TV series.) And all of this naturally leads to the de rigueur history lesson about the things and people he gave up (in short: everything) to bring peace to the 11,000,000 killed under Adolf Hitler's watch.

Yes, 11,000,000, not the usual 6,000,000. Wiesenthal, you see, knows that the Nazis' horrors didn't end at the concentration camps, and considers each and every death as a direct result of Hilter's crusade an abomination that must be answered for. And though Dugan's Wiesenthal is as mild-mannered as they come, seeming not just grandfatherly (in 2003, when the play is set, he was in his early 90s; he died just over two years later) but even apologetic in his mien if not his actions, the fire and the hope burn so brightly behind his eyes that you both understand and get enveloped in his passion, even when the steps in his quest proceed backward or even sideways, rather than the forceful forward movement he always demands.

Balancing such a portrayal in both writing and acting can't be easy, but Dugan manages it without ever calling attention to his artistry. Forgoing fireworks, sweeping gestures, and even most mimicry of other people's bodies and voices (though a bit of this creeps in), he paints an indelible portrait of someone who never wanted to be a household word. The urgent reluctant that floods, for example, his efforts to track down the nameless guard who actually saw Anne Frank, to prove to legions of European boys decades after World War II ended that her story was much more than fiction, is irresistible, even as it registers intellectually that it's an achievement that is—or at any rate, should be—too small to notice.

But in Wiesenthal, the tiniest moments are huge and the biggest are life changing, all while wrapped in an intimacy that gives the script a disarming, avuncular, and strictly conversational feel. The office set (by Beowulf Boritt) is crammed with character, photos and maps and books defining millions of lifetimes, but is likewise unnoticeable; Sullivan, eschewing much in the way of dynamic lighting effects (Joel E. Silver is the designer) and restraining Dugan's own emotional pyrotechnics and movement at every turn, plays right along, as if to reinforce the notion that great things frequently (even usually?) happen in places and with people that aren't themselves great.

That Dugan and Sullivan realize and embrace that is the greatest strength of the already-strong Wiesenthal. They don't have to do anything to elevate their subject; in fact, they do everything they can to keep him down to Earth, thus better highlighting the scope of his ambition and his accomplishments. One of the major recurring themes of the play is Wiesenthal's utter impatience, for those who went along with the excuse that they were "just following orders." Because they wouldn't take responsibility for their actions, he believes he has to. And, by the end of the evening, he'll have you believing it, too—and believing that you could just as easily be the next Superman should the need ever arise.

Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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