The problem with history plays is one of time. In theatrical time, the greatest of problems are resolved in a hundred and fifty minutes or less. Across that tiny stretch of time we have conflict, rising acting, falling action, climax, catharsis, and all the other things Aristotle noted that we demand from our drama.
History, on the other hand, takes place in historical time – which is to say, real time. Fiction is full of short cuts and plot twists, all of which are completely under the control of the author. History is messier and more complicated, and under no one’s control. Problems presented in the fictional universe take as long to resolve as it takes to tell the story. Problems presented by history have been going on for thousands of years, and are not resolved yet.
This is the principal difficulty with Captors, which takes a small slice of history – the seven-day captivity of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann (Phillip Goodwin) as he awaits transport from Argentina to Israel – and makes it even smaller. It is told from the point of view of Peter Malkin (Joey Collins), the young Israeli Mossad agent who first captured Eichmann on a dirt road in Argentina and later induced him to sign an important document. Indeed, it is literally from Malkin’s point of view, since as a frame for the story, Malkin, now an old man, is recounting Eichmann’s captivity to Cohn (John Keller), who is writing Malkin’s memoirs.
Playwright Evan Wiener appears to have devoted considerable scholarship to this piece, which is taken from Malkin’s actual memoir (with Harry Stein), “Eichmann in My Hands”. And the capture and subsequent trial of Eichmann were no trivial matters. Eichmann was unquestionably a moral monster, the bureaucrat-in-chief of the Holocaust, whose principal professional accomplishment was to make the trains to the death camps run on time.
On trial in Jerusalem, he raised the same failed “following orders” defense his colleagues had at Nuremburg sixteen years previously, but in Eichmann’s case, it was a lie. He liked his work. When Heinrich Himmler, Eichmann’s superior, ordered that he halt Jewish exterminations and destroy all evidence of the final solution, Eichmann ignored him, and continued the gassings. And SS Leader Otto Winkelmann, ostensibly testifying in Eichmann’s defense, said he “had the nature of a subaltern, which means a fellow who uses his power recklessly, without moral restraints. He would certainly overstep his authority if he thought he was acting in the spirit of his commander [Adolf Hitler].”
Wiener adds a few additional conflicts. The Mossad agents could simply have twisted a wire around Eichmann’s neck and left him dead in a ditch. But Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion wanted something more than that: a trial which would remind the world of the savagery done upon the Jewish people by Hitler and his minions while the world stood silent, so that we would all recognize why Jews needed a safe haven within his beleaguered country. Malkin and his colleagues needed to get Eichmann out of Argentina – a nation saturated with right-wing anti-Semites – and into Israel, alive and in one piece.
So we can, and should, respect what Wiener has brought to the table, but try as I might, I cannot bring myself to like it. There is little conflict, and less tension. The battle between Eichmann and Malkin is entirely one-sided; Malkin holds all the trump cards, and there is nothing that Eichmann can do. Chained and surrounded by Mossad security, the 54-year-old Eichmann has no chance to escape. It would be impossible for him to overpower his guards. Whatever threat exists to Mossad’s plan to fly him to Jerusalem comes from the outside; we do not see it but only hear the Mossad agents talk about it.
Malkin’s principal challenge is to get Eichmann to sign a document by which he consents to be tried in Israel but even if Malkin fails, it is not of overwhelming consequence: the Mossad agents will simply drug Eichmann, dress him up as an airline crewman, and put him on a plane bound for Israel – which is what they do eventually anyway.
Wiener tries to make up for this by emphasizing the conflict between Malkin and Hans, a more senior Mossad agent (Joseph Tisa) and Uzi, the mission leader (Michael Gabriel Goodfriend). This permits Malkin to pose as a think-outside-the-box rebel-at-heart, but we never take Hans’ growled threats seriously, and – let’s face it – we know how the story ends.
Wiener’s other device is to periodically step back from the central drama, and have Malkin back in the office of his ghostwriter, thrashing out one particular detail or another. This opens the door for some interesting commentary on the nature of memory, but Wiener doesn’t do it enough for the commentary to flow. Moreover, Collins does not attempt the difficult task of transforming himself from the youthful Mossad agent into the querulous old man (an impersonation he brought off impressively at the beginning of the play) in the writer’s office when the scene changes from the sixties to the near present.
When Shakespeare wrote histories, he simply changed the facts if the real ones were dramatically inconvenient (Richard III, for example, was almost certainly not a hunchback). We no longer permit our writers to do this, as Mike Daisey discovered to his chagrin. So it takes an unusual mix of talents for someone to write a history which is both accurate and emotionally satisfactory. Mr. Wiener may some day be such a writer. But The Captors is not such a play.
By Evan Wiener
Directed by Ed Herendeen
Produced at the Contemporary American Theater Fesival
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 2 hours, including one intermission