Bringing into sharp focus issues pertaining to first amendment rights is in large part fundamental to DENIAL, a two-act drama by Peter Sagal presented on the Second Stage at the Adrienne by Fever Dream Repertory theatre. During a 1995 interview about his then new play, Sagal admitted that the antagonist in DENIAL is based loosely on the Northwestern University engineering professor whose 1976 book, The Hoax of the 20th Century, quickly became the key reference document cited by members of the Holocaust-denial movement. However, unlike Bernard Cooper, the professor in DENIAL, the real-life engineering professor has never been prosecuted for his writings, though friends of his have been prosecuted in European countries where laws exist which limit the broader freedoms of expression of thought as protected under the First Amendment of our Constitution, no matter how offensive they may be.
For example, Wikipedia quotes former Northwestern University President, Henry S. Bienen, writing in the aftermath of a 2005 statement made by this university’s engineering professor congratulating Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for being the first head of state to proclaim that the Holocaust is a myth: …[He] has made clear that his opinions are his own and at no time has he discussed those views in class or made them part of his class curriculum. Therefore, we cannot take action based on the content of what [he] says regarding the Holocaust – however odious it may be – without undermining the vital principle of intellectual freedom that all academic institutions serve to protect. Both the university faculty and its president at the time clearly distanced themselves from the remarks of this professor. They did so in no uncertain terms, while making the distinction that while disagreeing with the message, the messenger was within his rights to make such a heinous statement.
In contrast, DENIAL’s Professor Cooper is not censored and, instead, is given voice through the unfolding drama to more or less state his case. And, because the professor character in the play is much more an activist than the real professor at Northwestern, he makes himself more visible to interested authorities. In this case, federal prosecutors who decide to pursue legal action against Cooper on the grounds that his writings are intended to incite hate-based violence against Jews, as evidenced by several recent acts of violence in which it was found that the perpetrators had copies of Cooper’s book. So, they confiscate his personal files and as the play opens we find Cooper in the office of Abigail Gersten, a Jewish lawyer who has reluctantly agreed to take the case for the defense at the behest of the American Civil Liberties Union. Gersten’s contempt for Cooper is obvious from the start and she explains that while she has no interest in defending his outrageous assertions, she does have a deeply abiding interest in protecting his right, under the First Amendment, to express his ideas.
Arnold Kendall gives to the audience a very believable Bernard Cooper as he spars unremittingly with the often all-too-easily provoked sensitivities of Gersten, played in a somewhat overdrawn manner by Nancy Segal, and the young, yarmulke-wearing Federal prosecuting attorney, Adam Ryberg, played a little over-zealously by Michael Brinckman. I suspect the problems I had with the portrayals of the two lawyers is partly attributable to the occasionally melodramatic script and partly the result of what emerges at critical moments throughout the play as superficial and therefore inauthentic portrayals of professional lawyers who understandably are confronted with both complex areas of legal concerns and personal moral indignation.
Kendall seems to capture just the right tone and pacing for Cooper, who presents himself as a respectable academic merely raising questions that seem to him to be inadequately answered by historical evidence. Within the context of his egocentric thinking, Cooper contends that just one lie in the accounting of the Holocaust makes all other accounts suspect, a position that takes on increasing importance as he is confronted with holocaust survivor, Noah Gomrowitz, played with wonderful intensity by Lawrence H. Geller. Gomrowitz is a highly respected Holocaust historian, obviously modeled after Elie Wiesel, whose entry into the drama serves well the effect of returning the play’s dramatic conflict from a simple defense of First Amendment rights to the always percolating to the surface concerns with the morality of Cooper’s contemptible assertions. In addition to presenting himself as a passionate researcher after the “truth”, Cooper has a devious plan in motion that carries the play to an exciting climax as he confronts Gomrowitz with what he believes is evidence of a lie that Gomrowitz has harbored since his release from the concentration camps and subsequent rise to international prominence as a witness for the six million Jews who lost their lives.
Without revealing more than one should in a review, suffice it to say that by the end of the second act, things are getting pretty intense. Will the prosecution proceed and, if so, to what effect given the strong desire by Cooper to have his day in court? Or will the defense succeed in coming up with a means of squelching Cooper’s wish to espouse his views in court while at the same time ending the federal government’s prosecution and returning to Cooper his personal files? Into the midst of this battle walks another survivor of the concentration camps, Nathan, portrayed with great sensitivity by Ben Kendall, who happens to also be in real life the brother of Arnold Kendall who plays Cooper.
There were times during this production that I wished the actors had been able to just stay in one place on stage in order to fully relate to each other and deal with the meaning of the lines they were speaking, as opposed to what seemed to be all too frequent stage crossing and aimless counter crossing of actors. Through it all, Fever Dream Repertory does manage to deliver an important play with a highly significant story for us all to ponder. DENIAL is an interesting drama containing more than enough fuel for thought regarding the complex decisions that we frequently must confront in the protections of freedom of expression in a democratic society.
by Peter Sagal
Directed by Penny L. Beene
October 1 – 16, 2010
Fever Dream Repertory
Second Stage at the Adrienne
2030 Sansom Street