Great theater is not always a comfortable experience -- indeed, a measure of unease might be a requirement for compelling drama. The Soap Myth, a superbly written, acted, and directed play, richly compensates the audience for whatever discomfort they might experience along the way to this play's conclusion. The action of this chamber drama is carried forward by a series of amazingly crisp, powerful, and natural conversations among the four-person cast. There are various pairings and groupings of the four, with two players portraying additional characters. The topic is one man’s passionate and relentless quest to conclusively answer what has become a lingering question: Did the Nazis actually manufacture soap from the body fat of their Jewish victims?
The man with the answer is Milton Saltzman (Greg Mullavey), a camp survivor, a witness -- who is essentially getting nowhere with the academic/historical community, which requires documentation beyond Milton's words, leaving him frustrated and infuriated. The Nazis were renowned for keeping meticulous documentation on everything (no matter how gruesome): moment-by-moment notes of the progress of horrific medical experiments, receipts, requisitions for equipment, and such. Regarding the topic in question, such substantiating "hard evidence" is lacking. Therefore what was at one time accepted as "true" has been relegated the status of "myth." The academics claim that any flaw in their scholarship will be used by Holocaust deniers to invalidate the entire Holocaust. Thus, they require rigorous evidence beyond hearsay, or even Milton's eyewitness testimony. Milton cannot accept this. He was there. He saw what he saw with his own eyes, and for him, that is that! That is enough! Period!
The story of The Soap Myth is framed by Annie Blumberg (Andi Potamkin), a young journalist assigned to write a story on the soap controversy. She gets acquainted with Milton, hears the academics' side from them, and deals with Milton's pained and ornery outbursts. Annie is torn between wanting to accommodate Milton's recollections in her article, and the academics' case for adhering to contemporary "historical standards." She is drawn to Milton’s cause, but cannot fully champion it. The logic of the academics she deals with, Dan Silver (Donald Corren) and Ester Fineman (Dee Pelletier), pulls her to their side. Her quandary is never quite resolved, but in the end there is some peace to be found, both for Annie and for Milton.
The cast of The Soap Myth is fully up to the stringent demands of a chamber drama. There is no reliance here on sets, props, dramatic lighting, nor intrusive music. Each player was superb in his or her own way: Mr. Mullavey’s Milton displays his waves of outrage and gentility with both power and grace. Ms. Pellitier was equally comfortable and believable as two characters: Ester Fineman, a put-upon frumpy scholar at a Holocaust museum, and Brenda Goodsen, a charming and insidious Holocaust denier. Donald Corren moves convincingly among his roles as museum official Daniel Silver, a Borscht Belt comic, and three Nuremburg war-crimes trial witnesses. Andi Potamkin is winsome and sympathetic as the fresh-faced journalist. The entire cast does full justice to playwright Jeff Cohen's writing as they deliver his intelligently crafted dialog. Arnold Mittelman’s direction is fluid and subtle.
The Soap Myth did put me through something of an emotional wringer, but it did not leave me hanging there. That a play on such a horrifying topic was brought to a heartening and poignant conclusion clearly affirms the brilliance of Messrs. Cohen and Mittelman and the entire ensemble. - Jay Reisberg
Photo credit: Richard Termine
Through April 22. 2012 at The Black Box Theater at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theater, 111 West 46th Street, NYC
Mr. Reisberg is a UCLA film school grad, professional singer, comedian, and bon vivant at large.