The late Simon Wiesenthal may have been the world’s foremost Nazi hunter, but he also had a sharp sense of humor. As depicted in “Wiesenthal,” Tom Dugan’s solo show that’s up through Sunday at the Illusion Theater, he told surprising, sometimes self-deprecating jokes.
Wiesenthal tells us that people considered him the Jewish James Bond because he ferreted out criminals across international borders — more than 1,100 during his unplanned career after surviving imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp. He prefers to see it in a different way.
“It’s because of my sex appeal,” he says, gazing coyly at the audience in his rumpled suit and sweater vest.
The light touches in “Wiesenthal,” a 90-minute one-act written by Dugan, help to balance the heavy subject matter. Wiesenthal tells the audience that his aim is not to provoke tears: “You can watch soap operas for that.” Sounding sometimes like a loving teacher, at others like an irascible uncle, he wants us to understand the human dimensions of the Holocaust — the humiliation the Germans felt after World War I, and the demagoguery that played to their emotions. He also offers concrete evidence of the Holocaust that cannot be denied.
The show, directed simply by Jenny Sullivan on a set by Beowulf Boritt, takes place in April 2003 — two years before Wiesenthal’s death at 96 — during his final day of work at the Jewish Documentation Center in Vienna. He unpacks his life story as he packs up his things. Pacing, sitting down and taking phone calls, Dugan employs a heavy accent that’s both true to his character and also forces us listen intently. He also shows us the Nazi hunter’s vocal disguises as he pretends, on the phone, to be a doctor trying to get medication to a patient who happens to be a fugitive war criminal.
Rummaging through the clutter of his memories, he tells us about his “greatest hits.” Wiesenthal’s work led to the capture of Adolf Eichmann, an architect of the Holocaust, along with many more whose names you might not recognize. As he tells us about these people — even “good Nazis” who might be invited to a Jewish wedding — he brings a very big subject down to human scale and makes us understand in intimate terms the mass murderers among us.
“People can be savages behind the wafer-thin veneer of civilization,” he tells us.
Even if tears aren’t his intent, it’s hard not to have moist eyes.