Hearts and Minds
A pair of new plays—one powerful, about Afghanistan; the other less successful, about Eichmann—bring recent history to the stage
Based on the 1990 memoir Eichmann in My Hands, by Peter Z. Malkin, the former agent who died in 2005, Captors explores three sets of relationships: one between Eichmann and his captors, especially Malkin; another concerning the tensions and rivalries within the Israeli team; and finally, the antagonism between team member Malkin and his memoirist, a relentless young writer named Cohn who challenges Malkin’s account of what happened inside the safe house during those 10 days.
But the three narratives interconnect awkwardly. This is particularly true of Wiener’s focus on Malkin’s memory. Thirty years after the Israeli gag order on the kidnapping was lifted, Malkin, portrayed by Louis Cancelmi, is finally able to recount his role in this early Israeli version of a modern-day American “rendition.” But is his account accurate, asks writer/collaborator Cohn, played by Daniel Eric Gold. Does accuracy about such minor details matter, Malkin shoots back. Yes, Cohn responds, because Eichmann’s own trial testimony was full of “lies and misdirections,” distortions and self-serving reinterpretations. So, Malkin’s book must be accurate, the writer insists.
The importance of memory is almost a play unto itself. Artfully tackled, the theme could have reinforced the dramatic tension in both the duels between Malkin and Eichmann and the rivalries among the Israeli team members. But when such a potentially powerful idea simply pops up, particularly after an intense confrontation between Eichmann and Malkin, it diminishes the power of the clash. That is a pity, for there is much to admire in Wiener’s thoughtful account of this riveting Israeli exploit.
The captors are a young, dedicated, inexperienced, and motley crew, virtually all of whom have lost family in the Holocaust. This gives their mission purpose, as does their determination to treat their captive as humanely as circumstances allow. The temptation to seek immediate vengeance on the architect of the Final Solution is powerful, and Malkin is not immune. He flirts more than once with killing Eichmann. Why risk spiriting him out of Argentina, a country literally “crawling” with ex-Nazi fugitives, to stand trial in Israel?
But Uzi, played by Ariel Shafir, convincingly argues that the death of an anonymous man at the hands of anonymous men would be buried in the press “under the latest on Sputnik.” When even some Israelis were reluctant to discuss the slaughter of Europe’s mostly passive Jews, the team sensed that a trial would be crucial for Israel and for Jews throughout the world.
Eichmann himself is problematic. Michael Cristofer’s Eichmann seems a nice fellow. The playwright has said that his intent was to “humanize” Eichmann as a character, to rescue him from being the iconic bureaucratic villain of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil.” But it’s hard to imagine Wiener’s Eichmann committing the atrocities described in the testimony at his trial in Israel. Wiener’s Eichmann worries tenderly about his “innocent” wife and children, who will not know where he has gone or what has become of him. His Strauss-loving, violin-playing Eichmann is perhaps too nice, which undermines Malkin’s ultimate triumph over him.
There is also a whiff of moral equivalency in Wiener’s characters. Yes, Malkin heatedly denies Eichmann’s assertion that both of them are alike because they are both “soldiers” bound by their sense of “duty” and “tied to our goals.” “There’s no difference,” Eichmann asserts. Malkin angrily disagrees: He and Eichmann are not alike. For one thing, Malkin says, he has disregarded his superior’s order not to “engage” him, seemingly a fairly inconsequential difference between them. Malkin also asserts that his team’s operation in Argentina differs from what Eichmann did because “the reasons are different, in every way.” While motive matters, the contrast between a team of Mossad agents violating Argentina’s laws to bring a Nazi war criminal to justice and Eichmann’s role in murdering Europe’s Jews should have been starkly drawn. The play dramatizes Eichmann’s kidnapping; Eichmann’s crimes against humanity remain off-stage.
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