Under the tutelage of actor Richard Dreyfuss, the darkened stage of the Little Theatre at Kean University in Union was transformed on March 5 into the commandant’s office at a concentration camp in the final days of World War II.
As the sounds of Allied gunfire draw closer, a Jewish inmate and former actor named Gruner (played by Dreyfuss) is ordered to switch his ragged prisoner’s garb for his captor’s Nazi uniform.
The imaginative premise is the core of a new play, Commandant, written by Frederic Morton, who took part in the event. He is an Austrian Jew whose father survived a year of incarceration at Dachau and moved with his family to the United States in 1940.
Taking on the role is the latest credit in the lengthy resume of the 64-year-old Dreyfuss, whose start in show business began at the age of eight, when he played the part of Haman in a Purim play at the Beverly Hills Jewish Center.
On the Kean stage, Dreyfuss and six other professional actors performed a dramatic reading of the two-act play. The work is replete with moral dilemmas and confusions between good and evil and touches on such provocative themes as kabalism, deceit, spousal abuse, and drug addiction.
The reading was presented by the Kean Jewish Studies and World Affairs Program, the Master’s Program in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, and the Kean Holocaust Resource Center.
“The play you are about to hear is a play that has layers,” Dreyfuss told NJ Jewish News prior to the reading. “It is not just about the Jewish experience in the Holocaust. It is about a lot of things.
“Listen,” he insisted. “The Jewish story is more than the Holocaust, and that alone will be a victory if we can get people to understand that.”
“We are partners, Gruner,” says the commandant (played by actor Jamie Jackson) to his captive in one of the most powerful moments of the play. “We are pro and con, good and evil, Jew and Nazi. We are a team. We are a casualty of history to be together.”
In a forum after the reading, Dreyfuss told the audience his character “was so twisted and so perverse, and he is willing to be thought less of by his opponent…. This is about evil and its rippling effects and consequences.”
Paraphrasing Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Morton told the gathering that his play conveys the suggestion that “the line between good and evil runs not between countries or races or groups. It runs through every human heart.”
Born in Brooklyn and raised in Beverly Hills, Dreyfuss has been a film actor since uncredited roles in Valley of the Dolls and The Graduate in 1967. He is best remembered for his appearances in such box office hits as The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Jaws, American Graffiti, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and his Oscar-winning performance in 1977’s The Goodbye Girl.
But since 2010 he has directed his efforts beyond acting and become deeply involved in The Dreyfuss Initiative, an organization whose mission, as stated on its website, is “to teach our kids how to run our country with common sense and realism, before it’s time for them to run the country. If we don’t, someone else will run this country, and the experiment of government by, for, and of the people will have failed.”
In that capacity, Dreyfuss addressed two separate audiences at the Little Theatre several hours prior to the play reading. First, speaking to a gathering open to the public, he stressed the need to return to the teaching of civics in American schools as a gateway to good citizenship. Then, in a smaller onstage seminar for Kean acting students and teachers, he spoke of his career, which began with a very Jewish experience.
“When I was eight, I said to my mother I wanted to be an actor. She said, ‘Don’t just talk about it.’ So I got up from the kitchen table, and I went down the street to the Jewish Community Center and I auditioned for the play, got the part of Haman, and never stopped. Ever.”
Although his political views are somewhat left of center, some of Dreyfuss’s roles have included such staunch right-wing figures as Alexander Haig and Dick Cheney. “Someone once asked me, ‘How could you play Dick Cheney?’ and I said, ‘There is a Dick Cheney in all of us.’ An actor’s job is to realize that inside him or her is Hitler and Jesus,” he told the seminar participants.
Dreyfuss described himself as “an agnostic who has had a blessed life. I have been able to do something I adored and knew why I adored it.”
But his satisfaction from acting “had become like a pair of old comfy shoes, and there was still something urgent in my life, which was my country,” Dreyfuss said. “Very deep in me is an apparition of a Reform rabbi in Bayonne, NJ, and when I write — and I write about civics all the time — you can hear [the rabbi] say, ‘All rise’ as I take on this other persona,” he said.
“When someone walks up to me and asks, “Are you Richard Dreyfuss?’ and I say, ‘Yes,’ they say, ‘Thank you.’ They don’t say thank you to their neurosurgeons or their divorce lawyers or their rabbis. They say it to actors because actors give them something they don’t get anywhere else, and it is a truly humbling experience.”