Eight times a week, Tom Dugan spends an hour transforming himself from a 56-year-old Irish Catholic originally from Winfield Park, NJ, into a 93-year-old Jewish Holocaust survivor from Ukraine.
Dugan plays the part of Simon Wiesenthal, the famed Nazi-hunter who survived internment at several concentration camps and was barely alive when Mauthausen was liberated by American troops in May 1945. After the war, Wiesenthal moved to Austria, where he began the process of documenting Nazi war crimes and helping authorities track down hidden criminals.
As playwright of and sole actor in Wiesenthal — the Off-Broadway play that opened last month at the Acorn Theater on 42nd Street — Dugan is determined to portray his character as accurately as possible.
To do so, he must undergo a lot of preparation. “I am not bald — I shave my head every day — and I wear a fat suit that puts on about 60 pounds.”
As for Wiesenthal’s European accent: “As an actor, one of the things I was handed by nature was a great ear for mimicry.” He did work with a dialect coach who studied Wiesenthal’s accent and speech patterns, Dugan said in a Dec. 4 phone interview.
When Wiesenthal began giving broadcast interviews in the 1950s, his English was very difficult to understand, “but he knew how valuable the media was going to be in his work,” said Dugan. “So he worked diligently to make sure he could be understood more clearly.
“By the time 2000 came along, he was completely understandable” despite the accent, said Dugan, and that is the voice he chose to use in the play.
Dugan’s interest in the war and the Holocaust was triggered by his father, Frank, a World War II infantry veteran who help liberate Langenstein, a sub-camp of Buchenwald.
Dugan told NJJN that when he asked his father if he hated Germans, “he said, ‘You shouldn’t hate people because of the group they belong to.’ He judged people by how they behaved.”
When Wiesenthal died in 2005 and Dugan read in his obituary that — like his own father — he had deplored collective guilt, “something really clicked.”
Beginning in 2007, Dugan researched Wiesenthal’s story “for a solid year.” He then wrote “for another solid year, and I have been honing the show and writing it over and over.”
He began performing it on stage and for groups of students in 2009. The play had earned Wiesenthal’s endorsement before he died.
As strange as it may seem, Dugan uses Wiesenthal’s sense of humor as a theme in his 90-minute work. “It was the key to writing the play,” he said. “I don’t think I could have written it otherwise. When I found out that he was an amateur stand-up comedian before the war I practically did a dance in my office, because humor is the only way people can sit and listen to such dark material. It has to be delivered in a way that is palatable and — dare I say — entertaining.”
In the beginning of the play, the Wiesenthal character explains, “I have been called the ‘Jewish James Bond.’ However, martinis give me a headache, and instead of an Aston Martin, I drive an old Peugeot…. The one thing that 007 and I have in common, however, is overwhelming sex appeal.”
On the night NJ Jewish News attended the performance, the audience appeared to be predominantly middle-aged and older, and presumably Jewish. Dugan said he wants more young people to attend.
“My favorite audience comes from middle school, high school, and college, and thousands of students have seen the show. Parents and grandparents come to me all the time and tell me it is important to communicate the importance of the Holocaust to their kids. But it is a very difficult subject to communicate to them without them turning off to it.”
Seeing plays like his, he said, “is a way for kids — whether they are 20 or 12 — to learn about the Holocaust and about humanity in a palatable way that they will not only listen to but be uplifted by.”
At almost every performance, there are at least one survivor and some children of survivors in the audience. To Dugan, their presence “is a great honor when they show up and when they thank me for telling their story.”
When he is not appearing Off-Broadway, Dugan lives in Woodland Hills, Calif., with his wife, Opell, and their two sons, Elie and Miles — all three of whom happen to be Jewish.
“Because of the fact that I am not Jewish and I live in a community that is very welcoming of ‘the other,’ tolerance plays a big part in our lives,” said Dugan. “So a story about Simon Wiesenthal and his teachings of tolerance comes very naturally to me.”
When he first got married, his father-in-law asked Dugan to convert to Judaism.
“I said, ‘I’ll think about it,’” said Dugan. But after Wiesenthal became a success, “with this Irish Catholic guy doing this Jewish story, I asked him if he still wanted me to become a Jew. “‘No, no,’” his wife’s father replied. “‘It will ruin the press release.’”
What are Dugan’s wishes for Wiesenthal, which is scheduled to run until Feb. 22? “I am hoping,” he said, “that it runs just a little longer than The Fantasticks,” the 1962 musical that ran for a record-breaking 17,162 performances.