Monday, November 28, 2011

Captors: Eichmann – The Nazi Monster as Performer

Louis Cancelmi & Michael Cristofer in Captors
Evan M. Wiener’s new play Captors (at the Boston University Theater until December 11th) manages to be both emotionally and intellectually engrossing. It tells the story of the kidnapping of Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires in 1960 by three Mossad agents who held him in a safe house outside the city while devising a plan to transport him to Israel to stand trial for war crimes. Their success was dependent on getting him to sign a release form permitting them to take him out of Argentina, where, under an assumed name, he was a legal resident. Wiener’s narrative, which is based mostly on Eichmann in My Hands, a memoir by one of the agents, Peter Malkin (co-authored with Harry Stein), is divided in two parts. In the first act Eichmann (Michael Cristofer) struggles to reassert power over his captors – mainly Malkin (Louis Cancelmi), the youngest of the three – by reaching across the enforced barrier between captive and captor and getting him to engage in conversation. In the second act Malkin throws over entirely the device of objectivity and uses their relationship to manipulate Eichmann into not only accepting the idea of a trial but welcoming it.

Wiener frames the story with another one: the writing of the memoir thirty years later, which marked the first time Malkin, trained in secrecy, opened up and spoke of those days locked in psychological battle with the chief architect of Hitler’s Final Solution. Daniel Eric Gold plays Malkin’s literary collaborator, here called Cohn. Wiener’s dramatic strategy is to have Cohn onstage constantly, taking notes while Malkin slips back to 1960 and sometimes challenging him when his version of events proves doubtful. As Peter DuBois stages this interaction between past and present, the interrogation takes place on a raised platform center stage while Cohn (who is also the narrator of the play) looks on from his desk stage left; the stage right area represents another room in the house – a living room or den – where Malkin and his fellow operatives, Hans (Christopher Burns) and Uzi (Ariel Shafir), confer.

Playwright Evan M. Wiener
The first time Cohn questions a detail in Malkin’s story, the interruption jolts the audience, who have accepted Malkin’s report as the absolute truth as well as the convention of the flashback; even though Cohn remains in sight and even sometimes in motion (pacing), we tend to forget about him, or at least we don’t focus on him. But Captors is a memory play, and one of Wiener’s points is that our memories aren’t reliable, especially since our emotional take on the past and the way in which we’ve allowed it to define us have a tendency to reshape them. Wiener doesn’t develop this idea enough, but it lingers suggestively over Malkin’s story. After all, it’s as much a story about perspectives as it is about psychological manipulation. With Uzi’s help – Hans is mostly condescending to Malkin and disapproving of his behavior – Malkin figures out that Eichmann’s weakness is his vanity and persuades him that only by standing trial in Israel can he restore the recognition he received in Nazi Germany for his brilliance and innovativeness.

Beowulf Boritt’s superb set design underscores the themes of memory and perspective. The three-part playing area is bounded upstage by mylar beyond which a wooded area is reflected occasionally on a cyclorama. Most of the time, however, the cyc is dark and we’re not aware of the rural surroundings; Russell H. Champa lights the mylar to provide a distorted reflection of the slabs of ceiling suspended over the two rooms in the safe house and the stage-right chandelier. (Eerily, while we wait for each of the acts to begin, it also creates a ghostly mirroring of the elegant Huntington house lights.) Champa also does first-rate work: the most striking illumination is supplied by search lights from downstage and above the mezzanine that remind us of the nature of the activity occurring in the safe house (as well as evoking the terror of the Gestapo raids on the Jews).

It’s a fine production. Its only inconsistency is in Cancelmi’s performance: he’s excellent in his scenes as the young Mossad agent, but whenever he takes on the mantle of Malkin’s middle age he becomes actorish, squinting and stretching his neck and layering on an unconvincing vocal affect. These transitions are the only false note in the acting. Cristofer (a playwright himself, The Shadow Box, and actor, Rubicon) is mesmerizing as Eichmann. He looks a little like Maximilian Schell, who played a character inspired by Eichmann in the 1975 movie version of Robert Shaw’s play The Man in the Glass Booth, but fortunately he doesn’t chew the scenery the way Schell did. In the first act, Eichmann tries to worm his way into Malkin’s good graces by arguing that not only was he forced against his will to go along with Hitler’s treatment of the Jews but that in fact he had tremendous respect for them. Cristofer gives a sly, audacious performance. (When Eichmann suggests that if he’d been born a Jew he would have been a Zionist, the absolute conviction in Cristofer’s tone makes your jaw drop.) Schell played Eichmann as a madman – not an interesting choice. Cristofer portrays him as a combination gifted snake oil salesman, actor and egomaniac. One of the most compelling elements in the play is the idea that Malkin was sent on this mission largely because of his skills as a make-up artist. He draws sketches of Eichmann that intrigue and flatter him, and when he makes him look younger Eichmann is entranced by this image of his Third Reich self. The captors’ plan is to pass him off as an El-Al pilot, but ironically when Malkin dresses him in uniform he resurrects Eichmann the SS Lieutenant Colonel. “Too good,” his fellow operatives declare as they survey Malkin’s handiwork, embossed by Eichmann’s undisguised pride in the figure he cuts. Wiener has written a marvelous role for a master actor and Cristofer rises to the occasion.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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