James Sherman as Ben Hecht Review- "The Ben Hecht Show" is a single actor play of uncommon power

 Grippo Stage Company is currently presenting the mid-west premiere of “The Ben Hecht Show”, extended through August 17, at Piven Theatre, 927 Noyes St., Evanston. The one-man show, written by  well-known playwright James Sherman, (every word in the script was actually written by Ben Hecht) and starring  Sherman in the title role is based closely on two books of Hecht’s, “A Guide for the Bedeviled”, (1944), a very controversial analysis of anti-Semitism, and “A Child of the Century”, (1954), Hecht’s autobiography. Both books explicate in brilliant and poignant detail the thoughts of the renowned Jewish-American newspaper journalist, playwright, screenwriter and novelist, about growing up, as did Sherman, an assimilated Jew, and later confronting his own identity in the face of rabid anti-Semitism.

James Sherman as Ben Hecht

Sherman obtained the rights to use Hecht’s words, and the production resonates with the strength of them.  Particularly compelling to this reviewer were the descriptions of how, despite two millennia of constant efforts to annihilate the Jewish spirit, these heinous efforts have always met with resounding failure. It’s a memorable, thought-provoking performance, with wry facial expressions, compelling body language, and, above all, the barely concealed fury of a man whose inherent wit and clever language can barely conceal the enormous rage and frustration behind his elegant words. These words convey very important ideas about the nature of hatred, racism and repeated efforts at attempted genocide.

 

Sherman himself wrote about his background and his response to the attempted 1977 Neo-Nazi march in Skokie-where he was raised- in “The God of Isaac” in 1985. In a number of respects, one critics remarks about that play could be echoed about Hecht's own words-"Sherman deals in humor that makes a point, charachters that ring true, situations many face, and occasionally something that might strike the viewer as racism". Hecht pulls no punches in his descriptions of/opinions about the Germans as murderers.

Ben Hecht speaks through James Sherman

The 75-minute show reveals Hecht in his own  well-appointed home ostensibly talking to a group of people about the story of his 1943 creation, co-authored with Moss Hart, the “We will never Die” pageant, which paved the way for President Roosevelt’s War Refugee Board in 1944. During the course of the show, Sherman, as Hecht, describes “the journey of discovery” he ventured forth upon when he became inspired to understand his place in the world as a Jew and to publicize the Nazi atrocities. In fact, according to the Jewish Virtual Library, based on information supplied by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Hecht “is most famous for his influence in helping Hollywood expose the nature of the Holocaust”.

James Sherman portrays Ben Hecht

Sherman as Hecht describes how, before 1933, when the Nazis gained power, he had little to do with Judaism or Jewish affairs, and didn’t define himself or believe that the world at large even identified him as a Jew. He learned otherwise,  became increasingly involved in anti-fascist and anti-Nazi activities, and his work reflected his attitudes. He used his contacts in the press and in Hollywood in the service of the underground Irgun, the military arm of the Revisionist Zionist movement.

James Sherman in "The Ben Hecht Story"

 The production also aquaints us with many of the intriguing characters who influenced Hecht’s journey of self-awareness, such as Charles MacArthur and Herman Mankiewicz and what would otherwise be a grim diatribe turns instead into an often humorous and revealing insider look at one man’s transcendent experience. Sherman does a remarkable job collating the material from Hecht’s many works and peopling his performance with the personalities of Hecht’s remarkable career. He appears to be seamlessly comfortable as Hecht, whether performing a sleight of hand trick with a box to demonstrate how the Jews always ultimately escaped their persecutors, or offering a glass dish of candy to the audience.This is an eye-opening and compelling look at a meaningful life, turned around and redirected in the service of humanity.

James Sherman as Ben Hecht in "The Ben Hecht Story"

Kudos and thanks to director Dennis Zacek for a tightly-held performance that never wavered into caricature or sentimentality. This play is highly recommended.

 

The Grippo Stage Company, founded by theatrical producer Charles Grippo, is a public charity whose mission is “to use theater to explore social issues and celebrate diversity”.

For more information about Grippo, and its productions, go to the Grippostagecompany website

All photos courtesy of Don Vanasek

 

 

 

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