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Metropolitan Playhouse
The American Legacy

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Reviews - Denial

by Martin Denton · April 20, 2007

Theatre should be incendiary: it shouldn't just make us think, it should make us mad—make us argue with each other all the way home and for hours afterward about who was right and what we'd do in their place and what we've learned from what we just saw and what we can do about it.

Denial, currently being presented in its New York City premiere by Metropolitan Playhouse, is such theatre. Although this play, by radio personality Peter Sagal, is perhaps somewhat flawed in some of the details of its construction, it nevertheless raises powerful issues that need to be aired and discussed. How is it that it has taken more than ten years for this piece to find its way to the NYC stage? (Kudos to Metropolitan for finally bringing it here.)

Denial is about a man named Bernard Cooper who is being investigated, or harassed, by the United States government. Cooper is an engineering professor by day, but his hobby is writing articles and pamphlets denying the existence of the Holocaust, and he's become well known among his fellow believers, to the extent that the feds think he's potentially harmful. They've seized his mailing list and other documents without a warrant and are planning to build a case against him.

Cooper believes that the government is violating his Constitutional right to free speech. The American Civil Liberties Union agrees, and they've helped find a top-notch attorney to defend him. The lawyer is Abigail Gersten, and she's Jewish. At first, for Abby the path is clear: even if Cooper's thoughts are repugnant and horrifying, he's allowed to express them and it's Abby's duty to fight for his right to do so. But as Abby gets to know her client better, she begins to doubt whether it's right for her to do that duty.

Denial mines complex moral ground, raising valuable questions about law versus morality, doing what's correct versus doing what's right, and the elusive concepts of truth and falsehood and good and evil. Sagal stacks the deck (deliberately, as he revealed in an informative talkback following the performance I attended) against Abby: her opponent is a young Jewish zealot attorney and her secretary and confidante is a young African American woman, both of whom have serious difficulties understanding why Abby feels any obligation to defend Cooper; and the man that Cooper is directing his most serious attacks against is an apparently saintly Holocaust survivor whose actions seem heroic in just about any context.

But nothing is ever quite as it seems, and so Denial takes some interesting twists and turns as it moves through a series of exciting confrontations that conclude the play.

For me, perhaps the most interesting element of the piece is its exploration of the scary discipline of Holocaust Denial. Cooper's arguments that this pivotal historical event never happened are based on actual, published work (his character is particularly modeled on a man named Arthur Butz). It's important for people to be aware that this movement exists and what its beliefs are. Rewriting history is not a new idea, or one that has been wiped out; as our collective memory is increasingly committed to the electronic ether of the Internet, safeguarding the truth becomes ever more important.

Metropolitan artistic director Alex Roe has mounted Denial splendidly, with a fine cast headed by Suzanne Toren as Abby, and H. Clark Kee, who is eerily convincing as Cooper. Alia Shakira Chapman is sympathetic and intelligent as Abby's assistant Stefanie, while Michael James Anderson is compelling as Abby's tenacious opponent. Martin Novemsky and John Tobias deliver excellent performances as, respectively, the Holocaust survivor and an unexpected presence from his past.

The production design features a smashing special effect that really startles and surprises—not the kind of thing you usually find in an off-off-Broadway theater.

See Denial and get lost in its gripping story with its potent dilemmas; talk about it with your companions; and be alert to the alarming attempts to stifle speech that regularly crop up on every side of every issue.

by Nancy Ellen Shore

National Public Radio personality Peter Sagal ’s thought-provoking 1995 drama,now being revived at the Metropolitan
Playhouse,is apt theatrical fare for Holocaust Remembrance Week.And given the free-speech issues raised by the Don Imus
debacle and February ’s physical attack on Elie Wiesel,it could not be timelier.
In Denial ,Jewish ACLU lawyer Abigail Gersten defends the rights of Holocaust denier Bernard Cooper after the U.S.
government confiscates his files in a criminal-conspiracy investigation championed by a zealous young Orthodox Jewish
prosecutor.Throw in Gersten ’s idealistic African-American student-secretary and Noah Gomrowitz,a Wiesel-like
concentration-camp survivor and international writer drawn into the fray,and dramatic fireworks fly as Sagal presents complex
answers to all the right questions.With our country polarized into us-against-them red and blue states,Sagal ’s courageous,
unsettling work is perfect for the Metropolitan ’s 15th-season theme,“black and white,” because it ’s a disturbing,deeply
theatrical gray.

There is one jarring structural inconsistency that undermines the show ’s power:Traditional linear scenes are broken up by
one-or two-line scenelets,with characters freezing on stage.And overall,Alex Roe ’s earnest production never quite gels,lacking
the true-to-life magic of last October ’s stunning The Octoroon despite fine ensemble work.Suzanne Toren is pitch-perfect as the
crusading Gersten,her tension level mounting to the breaking point,as is Martin Novemsky as the haunted,aging fighter
Gomrowitz,still voicing the outrage of 6 million silent dead.There ’s a particularly wrenching moment with the wonderful John
Tobias as his former fellow concentration-camp inmate.H.Clark Kee ’s genial,understated Cooper is convincing until you
realize what he ’s saying;beware one heinous,Hitleresque anti-Semitic outburst.Alia Shakira Chapman provides welcome levity
as the conflicted secretary,and Michael James Anderson makes the most of his thinly written,one-dimensional prosecutor.

Published: April 24, 2007

The very idea of denying the Holocaust is so ludicrous that any attempt at writing a serious play on the subject would seem futile. Yet Peter Sagal’s “Denial,” at the Metropolitan Playhouse, is an engrossing legal drama that examines the moral and ethical dilemmas inherent in the First Amendment.

Bernard Cooper is a mild-mannered engineering professor who has written a book and published a newsletter saying that the Holocaust was a fiction perpetrated by Henry Morgenthau Jr. and other Jews to malign der Führer and draw international sympathy.

A sort of milquetoast neo-Nazi himself, Cooper is a cult hero to skinheads whose idea of fun is to beat up Jews. When the F.B.I. raids his house, seizes his mailing lists and charges him with inciting violence, Cooper appeals to the American Civil Liberties Union, which in turn sends him to Abigail Gersten.

Gersten, a Jewish lawyer whose belief in the First Amendment overcomes her personal revulsion for Cooper, takes the case. “A witch hunt is a witch hunt, even if he happens to be a witch,” she reasons. The prosecutor is a zealous young Jew fresh out of law school who wears a skullcap and tries to shame Gersten into refusing to represent Cooper.

At the heart of the conflict is the question of how much sufferance a free society should give its crackpots to maintain its liberties. And at what point does the threat of violence to citizens validate curtailing an individual’s rights?

Mr. Sagal uses this platform to examine the issue of Holocaust denial. In fairness, he lets Cooper present his argument and even introduces a plot twist that exposes a false account of a death at Auschwitz that had appeared in a book by a famous survivor of the camp. Cooper posits that one lie makes the whole account of Holocaust horrors suspect.

For the most part, Mr. Sagal avoids sermonizing, although a final scene tacked on as a sort of redemptive coda for Gersten is ill advised. He also employs some dubious legal practices to bring the Holocaust denier and survivor face to face in the lawyer’s office. But the characters are well drawn, the arguments balanced, and the central issues couldn’t be more timely.

Under Alex Roe’s smooth direction, the six actors give able performances. As Gersten, Suzanne Toren is thoroughly convincing as a woman struggling to reconcile conflicting beliefs. As Cooper, H. Clark Kee is chillingly calculating. And John Tobias delivers an excellent turn at the end as Nathan, the Auschwitz victim who actually survived.

H. Clark Kee
Photo © Michelle DeBlasi