I didn't think it was possible to write a boring play about Adolf Eichmann.
Nevertheless, fledgling playwright Evan M. Wiener has managed to do it, and the Huntington has staged it with all the trimmings, under the guidance of artistic director Peter DuBois. If you doubt me as to its tedium, go ahead and sit through Captors (through Dec. 11) - but seriously, you're better off staying home and reading Hannah Arendt, on whose work Weiner's derivative ramblings are merely a thin theatrical gloss.
Does that sound harsh? I think I'm actually going easy on Wiener; he practically obscures Arendt, I'd argue. But then the real source of Captors is not the great Eichmann in Jerusalem but rather the lesser Eichmann in My Hands, a first-hand account of the fugitive war criminal's 1960 capture in Argentina by Peter Z. Malkin ("as told to" Harry Stein). Malkin was on the Israeli team that nabbed the Nazi, and his book essentially covers the ten days during which the kidnappers hunkered down in their safe house, to devise both an exit strategy and a disguise for their captive - all while simultaneously attempting to cajole (or threaten) him into signing a paper agreeing to his extradition and trial.
The eventual bestowal of that signature is one of the script's two small-scaled, but genuine, dramatic coups (the other occurs when Eichmann answers his guilt in the killing of children with the horrifying line - straight from Malkin's book - "But they were Jewish, weren't they?"). To some, these small shudders - created almost entirely by Michael Cristofer, in a striking performance as Eichmann (below) - may be enough to justify the evening, but all I can say is they're a long time coming; both occur about two hours into the play, and neither counts as a revelation. And I think it's worth noting that Malkin's (and Stein's, and Wiener's) account of how that key signature was obtained is widely contested. In Captors, Eichmann's pride seduces him into signing his own death warrant; but while one reading of his character lends some support to this idea, more worldly-wise historians think Eichmann only signed on the dotted line once a gun (or its equivalent) had been held to his head. (For tellingly, despite that signature, Eichmann had to be sedated to the edge of consciousness before he could be hustled out of the country.)
So Captors is probably suspect as history; it's certainly suspect as art. Wiener is an inexperienced dramatist - he has spent most of his relatively short career developing screenplays. But even most Hollywood hacks, I think, would have avoided the obvious mistakes he makes here. The playwright gives us not only extraneous scenes between Malkin and co-author Stein, for instance, but also gives Stein (a non-character if ever there was one) solo voice-overs, delivered straight to the audience. Even this might have worked if Wiener's writing was sharp, or tightly bound to personality and situation; but instead his characters hold forth on hypothetical questions of guilt and disguise and memory - re-iterating cliches from other, better plays - and their occasional "conflicts" feel forced. To make matters worse, the script hops back and forth between time frames, and Wiener never builds any sense of the claustrophobia or desperation that must have weighed on his characters (and which is generally the kind of thing at which first-hand accounts excel). Indeed, the entire first hour of the play lacks all shape or focus, and despite the looming historical and moral context, literally nothing seems to be at stake; the phrase that Arendt famously attached to Eichmann, "the banality of evil," hangs in the air - but surprisingly, so does another kind of banality.
|Michael Cristofer as Eichmann.|
And it seemed he was "normal" by every account. Psychiatrists found no evidence in Eichmann of mental derangement, and, strange as it may sound, most observers agreed he was not even anti-Semitic. Indeed, early in his career Eichmann worked with Zionists to deport the Jewish population from Germany (even traveling to Haifa, in an effort to relocate them to Palestine - a bizarre irony right there); the so-called "Final Solution" was certainly not his idea. Yet he carried it out assiduously - even as the Reich was falling apart in 1945, and the Holocaust was "called off" by Himmler, Eichmann kept the trains rolling.
Hannah Arendt's answer, in Eichmann in Jerusalem, was to re-interpret not Eichmann but evil itself, which she came to see as ordinary, commonplace - the true meaning of her resonant phrase, "the banality of evil." Not that Arendt felt Eichmann shouldn't swing (he was indeed hanged in 1962 in Israel), nor did she buy his vain defense, with its discombobulated refs to Kant; Eichmann always knew what he was doing, Arendt argued. Her deep insight was that we're all a bit like Eichmann; we all accommodate the evil forces running through society, and even advance ourselves with their help. When PBS or Lincoln Center accepts money from David Koch, for instance, they're acting a bit like Eichmann. When Americans torture out of their fear of terrorism, they're acting a bit like Eichmann (indeed, John Yoo's and Dick Cheney's "theory of the unitary executive" was basically a gloss on Hitler's Führerprinzip). Even when you or I turn a blind eye to Apple's factories in China, we're acting a bit like Eichmann. The Nazis' best bureaucrat took such participation to an extreme, it's true; still, there's no clear dividing line between us and him; in the end, he was less an amoral demon (instead, Arendt likened him at times to a clown), than the most horrifyingly ruthless of Human Resource Directors.
|Was he a war criminal too?|
And on the other hand, the tale of Eichmann's capture should still resonate uncomfortably with its political, if not moral, quandaries; for all the questions of how, when and why to avenge wrongdoing in a corrupt world are still very much with us. No one could begrudge the great Jewish tradition its revenge on the evil men who tried to destroy it; nor should we ever forget the terrible facts of the Holocaust. Still, at this late date, with Jewish culture firmly ensconced at the heart of theatrical life, perhaps we can afford to consider the questions of Israeli exceptionalism that Captors celebrates. For it's a tale of undercover operatives invading a sovereign nation and plucking one of its citizens from the streets - which made we wonder, would we feel the same way about Eichmann if he had been kidnapped from the streets of America? For just btw, wasn't Wernher von Braun (at right) a member of the SS (and weren't his rockets assembled in concentration camps)? And isn't the Catholic Church, which spirited Eichmann (along with many other Nazis) to Argentina, still a global force - indeed, wasn't its current leader a member of the Hitler Youth? Pope Benedict has argued that his membership was a matter of financial necessity - but, ummm - is that so very far from Eichmann's argument?
|The play in the glass booth. Production photos - T. Charles Erickson.|
So questions of guilt and innocence are rarely pure and never simple, even when it comes to Nazi war criminals. Indeed, watching Captors, I couldn't help but remember Robert Shaw's play The Man in the Glass Booth, a rather woozy existential identity-puzzler from the 60's, in which Israeli abductors nabbed the wrong man - or did they??? (Part of the reason I couldn't forget it was the large glass booth DuBois and designer Beowulf Boritt had erected around the set at the Huntington, in a nod to Eichmann's famous containment during his trial.) Now I'm in no rush to see the pretentious Glass Booth again, but I have to admit it actually had ambitions that Captors can't match - and that's too bad. For I'm not sure the Huntington's audience is truly served by this kind of production. It has clearly been pulled together as a nod to the 50th anniversary of Eichmann's trial - which makes it, weird as it may sound, a kind of nostalgia piece.
But don't we already get enough nostalgia from the Huntington? And while we should never forget the Holocaust, must we always remember it the same way? (Isn't a living memory all about its context?) The Huntington's Jewish audience is facing what could be a sea-change in its identity; the Middle East is morphing around Israel, there is increased awareness that America's best interest may not align with that of the "Jewish lobby," and sympathy with the plight of the Palestinians is on the rise. Cries of anti-Semitism won't easily stop this ferment - so couldn't the Huntington's "Jewish play" be about that? I know people often smile at this theatre's "diversity" programming - which sometimes seems to dole out productions like presents to the various segments of its audience. I actually don't find anything wrong with that policy - as long as the productions engage with how we live now. But you couldn't make that claim about Captors - just as you couldn't make it about the Huntington's last effort, Before I Leave You. Both were in different ways essentially sentimental, and neither, to be blunt, was ready for a professional production; you could argue they were chosen for their marketing merits rather than their artistic ones. Which is why I worry that there's something broken over at the Huntington right now, and I'm hoping that one way or another, it's soon fixed.