For 58 years, Simon Wiesenthal hunted Nazis. By the time he retired in 2003, he had brought 1,100 of them to justice. “I’m not a lawyer, a detective or a government agency,” he says in the solo show “Wiesenthal,” written by and starring Tom Dugan, which has just opened at the Acorn Theater on Theater Row. The play takes place on the day the “Jewish James Bond,” as he jocularly refers to himself, is retiring from his Vienna-based Jewish Documentation Center; we, his audience, are supposedly young visiting Americans.
An architect, Wiesenthal was a Holocaust survivor, who was rescued by Americans and immediately began his quest for justice, according to Dugan’s play. When the Americans set up a “War Crimes Office” at the site of the concentration camp where he was last imprisoned, Dugan’s Wiesenthal informs us, he rubbed red ink on his cheeks “to appear healthier so the doctors won’t send me to hospital.” He wanted to be a witness.
Over the 90 minutes of the play, Wiesenthal is depicted as an avuncular 93-year-old man with a strong Austrian accent and a penchant for little jokes and long stories. He tells just a few of his Nazi-hunting stories – which he introduces as “the story of the bookkeeper, the story of the chicken farmer, the auto mechanic, the policeman.” Not all of them end with a satisfying sense of justice. The “chicken farmer” was named Franz Murer and nicknamed The Butcher of Wilna; he was responsible for the death of almost 80,000 Jews in that Lithuanian town. Wiesenthal convinced witnesses to testify against him at a trial, but Murer was acquitted. But Wiesenthal also tells of how he successfully tracked down the police officer who arrested Ann Frank, to prove her existence to those who had doubted the authenticity of her diary.
Every now and then in the play, Wiesenthal goes to the telephone in pursuit of Alois Brunner, a still-surviving Nazi war criminal (in 2003!)
There is no question that Wiesenthal spent most of his life in heroic pursuit of war criminals. There is some question about the details, as even a cursory look online indicates. “Wiesenthal” largely avoids the controversies surrounding the Nazi hunter: He was accused, for example, of exaggerating his involvement in the capture of Adolf Eichmann, and of having mistakenly cleared U.N. Secretary General and Austrian President Kurt Waldheim of a Nazi past, though an investigation by a panel of historians determined otherwise. One can charitably attribute the play’s sidestepping of such issues to a desire to gear the show for young people, who are probably the best audience for it.