The Soap Myth
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 11, 2009
Though many of our leaders past and present would suggest otherwise, current events are never cut-and-dried, black-and-white, good-or-evil; and as they pass into the annals of history, they are even less so. The great strength of Jeff Cohen's important new play The Soap Myth is that its author understands this. A topic that seems on its face to be clear and simple is instead revealed to be more and more complex and difficult to parse as its layers are peeled away.
That topic is the persistent idea that the Nazis used the fat of murdered Jews to manufacture soap. The play's title relegates the idea to the stuff of legend and rumor; we learn during the play, in fact, that such a rumor was circulated in France during World War I about the Germans. But Milton Saltzman, the (fictionalized, based on fact) central character of The Soap Myth insists otherwise. He says that he was in a concentration camp, that he saw evidence of the soap being made; he shows a photograph of a group of men carrying a casket that contains bars of soap instead of a body.
What Milton wants is for the institutions that nowadays control the history and legacy of the Holocaust to grant him validation and recognition. He wants his evidence to be displayed in museums. He wants his memories to be accepted as true and placed into the permanent record of Nazi atrocities.
But the powers-that-be are not ready to do this. There's not enough corroboration in the records—the Nazis were obsessive recordkeepers, after all, so where is the documentation of soap-making among the other meticulous files on forced sterilizations, experimentation on human guinea pigs, etc.? If there's even a bit of doubt of the veracity of the claim, Holocaust deniers will pounce, and use the possibly falsehood/exaggeration to solidify their case. As one of the gatekeepers trying to keep Milton at bay concludes, what does it finally matter whether the soap myth is true or not—isn't the list of proven and known Nazi atrocities long and horrific enough already?
Cohen gives Milton and those whom he wants to convince but ultimately opposes equal time in this balanced, intelligent play. Everybody has a point to make, and everybody gets a chance to do so persuasively and articulately, including Brenda Goodsen, a British Holocaust denier (whom Cohen says is a composite of several actual persons) whose arguments ultimately feel pretty repugnant and hard to hear. Indeed, it's the dazzling objectivity and even-handedness of the play that gives it real moral heft that only wavers in its final moments when Cohen has his protagonist—a young journalist named Annie Blumberg who has written an article about Milton's story—arrive fervently at a conclusion that might better be left for each audience member to find on his or her own.
The Soap Myth is helmed by Larissa Lury with passion and directness on a stark multi-leveled set designed by Heather Wolensky. Katia Asche (Annie) and Joel Friedman (Milton) anchor the cast with solid performances; Louisa Flaningam convincingly and compellingly plays Brenda Goodsen as well as a woman who is in every way her opposite. Victor Barbella and John Plumpis serve as a kind of chorus, taking all of the other necessary roles.
The Soap Myth doesn't solve the mystery, such as it is, of whether Nazis actually did what Milton says they did. In the end, whether they did or not is far less important than what Milton's story shows us about ownership of memories and stewardship of history. Something in human nature seems to resist learning the right lessons from our monstrous past; maybe work like this can help us navigate toward the correct path.