nytheatre.com review 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.