Review: “The Ben Hecht Show” (Grippo Stage Company)

James Sherman/Photo: Dan Vanasek.
James Sherman/Photo: Dan Vanasek.

Show: “The Ben Hecht Show”

Company: Grippo Stage Company

Venue: Noyes Cultural Arts Center (927 Noyes St)

Die Roll: 3

“The Ben Hecht Show” is a quiet play. In real life, the title character is responsible for the chilling spy games of “Notorious” and the screwball newspaper antics of “His Girl Friday.” But in this solo piece dedicated to his fight against Antisemitism and atrocities during World War II, erudition and reflection are the screenwriter’s tools of choice.

Based on Hecht’s books A Guide for the Bedeviled and A Child Of the Century, this one-man play written and performed by James Sherman uses only Hecht’s words to take the audience on his journey from ignorance to enlightenment. We first see Hecht typing in his library, and he interrupts his work to introduce us to a conundrum: once you have experienced anti-Semitism, what can you do to stop it? His journey begins with an actress asking him to stand in for all Jews while positing that the Germans are not really all that bad, and soon Hecht is filling the audience in on his idyllic upbringing and fast-rising career as a screenwriter. His success seems untouched by his Jewishness, though he notes that many in his field hid or changed their Jewish names in order to get by in the industry. After experiencing prejudice and realizing that an entire people are being wiped out in Europe, Hecht resolves to use his skills to create a call to action.

Sherman welcomes the audience into Hecht’s puzzled state by degrees. Hecht’s writing avoids sensational stories and broad pronouncements, so the emotional meat of his struggle can come off as conceptual at times. Sherman must mix Hecht’s bewildered moments into a concoction that is equal parts humor at the human race and even-keeled curiosity about its failings. No easy feat, but he brings a conversational warmth to Hecht’s persona that ingratiates the audience to his breakdown of identity politics. Once Sherman gives up the ghost that Hecht has been hiding all evening – namely, that he fought for Jewish appreciation during the war not for political, but personal reasons relating to his love of his Jewish neighborhood growing up – the admission feels like it costs the actor something, and that is impressive, given how intellectually Hecht wraps us in his problems.

James Sherman/Photo: Dan Vanasek.
James Sherman/Photo: Dan Vanasek.

If the script is a bit muddled in the service of preserving Hecht’s voice, perhaps that is the cost of using only his words for the production. As Hecht organizes theatre and film people to perform what’s labelled a piece of “Jewish propaganda,” friends and colleagues argue with and abandon him. Given that this artistic creation is the most concrete representation of Hecht’s activism seen in the play, it is galling that the audience never understands why people turn against Hecht’s work at this moment. Why would “Jewish propaganda” be a bad thing? Why do various Jewish organizations fight over the proposal? What end result does Hecht hope for? None of these questions are addressed, and so the play ends on a confused, rather than clarifying note.

Director Dennis Začek provides visual cues for Hecht’s growing struggle with how he can help his people in a time of crisis. Props placed throughout Hecht’s home library (subtly furnished by set designer Abigail Reed) are picked up and shown to the audience, to give a little context to his tale. These objects, as well as slide projections showcasing movie posters, also give Sherman an impetus for movement and reflection. As he deepens his reflection, he removes his hat and loosens his tie. Such flourishes demonstrate at least the illusion of internal conflict, even when the script refuses to delve deep into the emotions Hecht is exploring.

But there are blessings in a quiet evening of theatre. Sherman’s portrayal is never overzealous, and when Hecht eliminates humor in favor of sorrow, he learns a valuable lesson: people will listen to what you have to say if you throw in some jokes with the drama.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Famous screenwriter spins a warm, intellectual yarn.

DICE RATING: d10 – “Worth Going To”