Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Captors"

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note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth

a captivating look at Eichmann’s capture

A Review by Sheila Barth

Years ago, that name of the “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem” sent shivers down Jews’ spines. Many of us had relatives in Europe who were never heard from again, and we knew the monster had eliminated them. Aunts. Uncles. Cousins. Small children, weeping elders whispered in Yiddish, pointing to me. Gone. Evaporated like mist. Children like Eichmann’s own beloved German four sons. That was all right, though, he said. Those children were only Jews.

Lt. Col. Adolf Eichmann. Even after World War II was over, he relished sending more Jews to death camps, gassing them, but declaring at his 1961 trial in Jerusalem that he was only following orders, like any obedient, dutiful soldier.

Playwright Evan M. Wiener captures the monster architect of death’s essence, his treachery and lack of humanity and morality, along with his suffocating narcissism and ego, in “Captors,” a two-act, two-hour play based on Peter Z. Malkin and Harry Stein’s 1990 memoir, Eichmann in my Hands”. The production is making its world premiere with the Huntington Theatre Company through Dec. 11.

The play, which opened on the 50th anniversary of Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem District Court and closes on the 50th anniversary of his conviction, is expected to go to New York City afterward.

Wiener doesn’t attempt to explain Eichmann’s psyche. He reveals a little-known, 10-day period that changed history dramatically - opening in mid-May 1960, when Mossad (Israeli underground) and Shin Bet agents abducted Eichmann one night on a suburban Buenos Aires street and took him to a safe house for 10 days. They interrogated him and convinced him to agree to be tried in Jerusalem for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

One agent responsible for Eichmann’s capture, Peter Malkin, wrote about the extraordinary arrest in his 272-page memoir, “Eichmann in my Hands,” which some historians dispute, but can’t officially refute. Some claim Eichmann and Malkin didn’t speak the same language well enough to understand each other. Eichmann’s German was poor, and Malkin spoke Hebrew.

The play shifts from 1990, when Malkin hired a writer to pen his memoir, to flashbacks of Eichmann’s capture, his 11-day captivity, and preparation for an undercover flight to Jerusalem for trial.

Set designer Beowulf Boritt created an imposing set, with large, rectangular structures hanging akimbo overhead, and the stage divided into three, seamless scenes - the writer-narrator’s office, where Malkin relates his story; Eichmann’s small room, where he is chained to a single bed; and a meeting room in the safe house, where agents Malkin, his boss, Uzi, and interrogating agent Hans discuss orders and information. Lighting designer Russell H. Champa and M.L. Dogg’s jarring sounds, storm and music between scenes intensifies the play’s suspense and drama. The play opens in darkness, with shadowy figures on a stormy street, colliding, abducting a man. Screams pierce the air.

The legendary monster is stripped down to only a sleeveless undershirt, shivering, cowering, with fear. His captors have no pity for him, only revulsion. They all have lost family to this creature. Although they all desire revenge, they are scrupulously aware they mustn’t harm Eichmann because they’ll be under intense international scrutiny for kidnapping him.

During Eichmann’s capture, the secret agents marvel it took only five of them to carry out their plan. Malkin, 32, an explosives expert who’s an artist and master of disguise, works closely with Eichmann, to disguise and sneak him out of Argentina, that’s non-sympathetic to Jews and a haven for high-level Nazis. Eichmann’s narcissism surfaces, proud of his youthful disguise in an El Al uniform.

Growing more confident, Eichmann tells Malkin about his trip to Haifa in 1926, to learn more about Jewish culture, saying he agreed with Zionist Theodor Herzl --- Jews should have their own state: Israel. He adds Britain doesn’t deserve to have Israel. “I never hated your people; it was the other Germans,” Eichmann says. He insists he never killed anybody - never - he shouts. He only followed orders consistent with his elevated rank among the SS. He did what was expected of him. When he tells Malkin they are alike --- two soldiers following orders, tied to an oath --- Malkin loses his temper, searing under the comparison.

For two hours, Tony Award-Pulitzer Prize winning playwright-actor Michael Cristofer is compelling as Eichmann. He’s clever, charming, cowering, condescending, a master of mind control, conceit and deceit. Louis Cancelmi as Malkin is also engrossing, as he peels off disguises, switching from older Malkin in 1990 to his younger self in flashbacks. The two are mesmerizing during their many cat-and-mouse sessions, laced with insincerity and manipulation.

Ariel Shafir as agent Uzi, Christopher Burns as agent Hans, and Daniel Eric Gold as the biographer insistent on accuracy, are also effective.

Wiener doesn’t pretend to analyze Eichmann’s personality or what turns an average person into a monster. He captures a moment in time, when the entire world stood still, and was finally forced to pay attention to the horror of the Holocaust and its architects.

That horror has left scars and successors even now, from the Armenian and Cambodian holocausts, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and others‘ murderous swaths. Eichmann’s trial opened the eyes of the world 50 years ago. Will Wiener’s play increase awareness?

"Captors" (11 November - 11 December)
@ 264 Huntington Avenue, BOSTON MA

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