The Ben Hecht Show Review - What Does It Mean to be Jewish?

 

Playwright and solo actor James Sherman does a yeoman’s job of portraying the cerebral life of Ben Hecht, one of America’s greatest authors, who achieved lasting fame writing novels and plays for the theater and screen. Clearly, Sherman has researched his subject carefully and, for the audience’s viewing after the show, even has a copy of the 1943 Reader’s Digest available in which Ben Hecht contributed an article. As the participants enter the theater, Sherman is already in character as Ben Hecht typing on his trusty old typewriter while pondering his next line, hat perched on his head and glasses clinging to his nose.

 

From the very beginning, it is clear that Ben Hecht’s career moves and milestones are cast into the play as an aside. It quickly became obvious that this was not to be a play about Hecht’s journalism, script writing, script doctoring, or his receipt of the Academy Award in 1929. What this play is really about is Hecht’s response to being Jewish. He expounds about his lack of contact with Jewishness - after all, he’s an American Jew - until later in his life. The focus of THE BEN HECHT SHOW is actually Hecht’s coming to understand the profound effects that Judaism ultimately had on his character – or at least on his thinking. 

 

The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, Hecht was raised in New York City speaking English and Yiddish and playing a master fiddle. As a child, he moved to Racine, Wisconsin, where his only contact with Judaism was preparing for his Bar Mitzvah: “I could read Hebrew, but I didn’t understand it...as soon as I finished my Bar Mitzvah, we got rid of the rabbi.” Throughout the play, he casually throws out literary gems: “Being Jewish is not a venereal disease;” “Jews are peddlers with genius;” “Anti-Semitism is the triumph over reason;” “Hollywood is an empire of toy-makers created by Jews.” It was not until World War II that Hecht began to appreciate his own background - and perhaps his withering Jewish roots - and became an outspoken advocate for European Jews, thus engendering the ennui and even the distrust and anger of his Jewish compatriots. We’ll never know if it was guilt or angst over somehow failing his fellow Jews - or whether that is the only side of Hecht that we see in this play. 

 

THE BEN HECHT SHOW is heavy with lecture and light on humor (which, interestingly, Hecht himself says must accompany any tales about Jews). Even minor digressions like a Hassid marionette or a false-sided box cannot disguise the play’s message, intoned repeatedly.  Sherman does an excellent job of portraying Ben Hecht but may also have tunnel vision. By looking almost exclusively at Hecht’s Jewishness, we are not treated to a multi-dimensional view of a fully developed human being with emotions as well as thoughts. When the play ends, we don’t really know who Hecht was. Somehow his soul gets lost in this expository layering of events. In the long run, we know about the man - but not the man himself. All in all, this was an interesting and thought-provoking presentation - but could have been more personal and less didactic. At the same time, the set is perfect for the play, laden with books, photos, and memorabilia which would have made Hecht’s mother proud. 

 

THE BEN HECHT SHOW plays from July 25 to August 16, 2015, on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and on Sundays at 2 pm. The Zephyr Theatre is located at 7456 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90046. Tickets are $25 and are available by calling (323) 960-7861 or  go online.

 

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