The Soap Myth
nytheatre.com review by Avi Glickstein
March 28, 2012
For most of us, our bathing rituals are rejuvenating, positive moments in our daily lives. They jolt us awake in the morning, preparing us for the day ahead, or they ease into bed in the evening, washing away the stress of the day behind us. But for Milton Saltzman, they are torturous reminders of a horror he knows occurred but can’t get anyone to acknowledge. Saltzman’s obsessive pursuit of recognition serves as the focus of Jeff Cohen’s well-intentioned but often one-note Holocaust drama, The Soap Myth, produced by the National Jewish Theater and currently playing at the Black Box Theatre in the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Center for Theatre.
The play’s title refers to the oft-repeated contention that the Nazis used Jewish corpses to make soap. Saltzman (Greg Mullavey) is a survivor who claims that he witnessed a funeral in his village in which the casket was filled with bars of soap. A photo of the funeral, along with his testimony and some other circumstantial evidence, serves as the proof he offers to the curators of the National Holocaust Museum, with whom he’s been fighting to have his story included in their exhibition. Annie Blumberg (played with a wide-eyed, open-hearted idealism by Andi Potamkin) is a young journalist writing an article about Saltzman’s quest for “Right Now!, a progressive Jewish monthly.” She becomes the lens through which we see Saltzman and “Soap,” shorthand for a problem that, as the play makes clear, is not something that can be summed up so tidily.
The same unfortunately can’t be said for Cohen’s main characters. As written, they come across as simply mouthpieces for his (notably successful) attempt to present the delicacies and philosophical issues lying at the heart of Soap. They are less Saltzman and Blumberg, for example, than they are “Holocaust survivor” and “young, female journalist.” This despite the fact that Saltzman is based on an actual survivor. Whatever specificity they have comes predominantly from the performances (under Arnold Mittleman’s economical direction). We never get a glimpse of them outside of their relationship to Soap. Mullavey and Potamkin work hard to find nuance in their often circular and repetitive scenes (Believe me! I do! No you don’t!), but they can’t make up for what’s not there. Cohen seems to take their relationship (and our attachment to it) for granted, and a scene toward the end of the play that should be cathartic isn’t because the script hasn’t earned it.
Surprisingly, Cohen fares better in his crafting of a series of ancillary characters. Played expertly by the chameleon-like Donald Corren and Dee Pelletier, they help to expand the universe of the play and highlight its central question: What constitutes historical proof? Corren’s astounding transformations are fun to watch, but Cohen’s question is particularly crystallized in Pelletier’s doubling of Esther Feinman (a Holocaust scholar) and Brenda Goodsen (a British Holocaust denier). As we enter a time when all the first-hand witnesses to Hitler’s atrocities have passed away, these are the two forces that will remain to do battle. Pelletier brilliantly captures Feinman’s bristling (and not unfounded) paranoia as well as Goodsen’s terrifying dynamism, especially in a short lecture she gives at one point. I came away feeling like I had more of a sense of these two women than I did of anyone else on stage. The play may have been better served with these two women at its center rather than on its periphery.
The Soap Myth may suffer from some dramaturgical problems, but it raises important questions not only about Holocaust history, but about the recording and documentation of any modern atrocity. What must be done to ensure that, when direct witnesses are gone, the truth survives? As the grandson of survivors, I never had to look further than the tattoos on my grandparents’ arms to find a connection to history. Sitting in the play’s subterranean theater (which, intended or not by the choice of venue, called up my visit to a gas chamber at Dachau), I found myself thinking less about whether Saltzman will have his story told and more about how I will make the Holocaust something more than history for my own children, nieces, and nephews. This is not a unique problem for Jews by any means. But, as the play makes clear, it is a tricky business. As we move further and further away from history, actual truth becomes less important than verifiable truth. For those few remaining witnesses to atrocity, that can be a painful thing.