With a modest light casting a warm glow we are greeted with the shaven head of an old man holding a feather duster, gently cleaning the specks from an urn occupying an obvious throne of prominence.
Back and forth he swipes until finally, he is happy. Or if not happy, then at least satisfied.
That’s the opening of "The Man in the Glass Booth" which opened Thursday night at Off The Wall Theatre.
To say this play is disturbing and powerful is like saying Ryan Braun can hit a baseball. Nothing quite captures the depth and breadth of this story.
It concerns one Arthur Goldman, a wealthy Manhattan Jew who has created a paradise of buildings, art and sycophants.
Goldman’s journey begins with tiny steps and we walk quietly beside him as he moves from rich guy who cracks jokes to madman right before our eyes. His madness is Jewish madness, a combination of hate, guilt and longing that is palpable.
Once the madness seems to take flight, he is arrested by Israeli agents who say he is not Arthur Goldman but rather Adolph Dorff, a Nazi SS colonel accused of horrific war crimes. It is a familiar story to anyone who has even a passing knowledge of the history of the Holocaust and its aftermath.
Act Two has Goldman/Dorff in prison and then on trial. And while the brutal dialogue and the vivid and horrifying video of concentration camps are moving and memorable, there is no new ground broken here.
We all know that the Nazis were horrible. We all know that Jews have responded to much of the persecution by forging an identity that is as strong and fierce as any ethnic group.
At the end, however, the final twist comes from a camp survivor who says that Dorff is "really" Arthur Goldman because she knew Goldman in the camp. The revelation and his sudden freedom turn Goldman into a frozen maniac inside the glass booth that provided shelter from bullets as well as the truth.
Make no mistake. Although this play has a dozen or more actors, it is a one-man show.
Dale Gutzman, the veteran actor/producer/director who runs Off The Wall and has a fervent admiration society for his work, especially in musical theatre, shows that he has the kind of chops that can provide chills.
It is a huge part and Gutzman plays it for all the melodrama it is worth. His sorrow and his anger and his fierce pretension are a true tour de force.
When, at trial, he describes how he ordered the murder of thousands and how he watched as the blood from the latest victims dripped down on the previous ones and the glee he takes in his actions, he makes your skin crawl.
It is a truly magnificent performance and one which would have suffered greatly from an approach that favored restraint and understatement. Goldman is an immense character and the acting to pull him off must be equally immense.
The rest of the cast is fine, led by Robert Hirschi, who plays Goldman’s intimate assistant and provides the sole island of sanity in the crazed first act of the play. Hirschi, who is also one of Milwaukee’s finest singers, makes Charlie Cohn just sallow enough to understand that Goldman is not without someone to watch over his growing madness.
The conceit of this play is complex with the two acts so juxtaposed. In the first we watch in rapt and giddy amazement at the emotional self-destruction and self-delusion of this man.
In the second act we are moved by power, but there is no light bulb that goes off as we suddenly say "Gee, those Nazis were terrible." Instead of the light bulb I found myself wondering how the Israelis could have made such a terrible error. And how easy it seemed for the court to free him after just one woman said she knew him as Goldman.
Those minor questions, though, are not significant because this is a performance of such power and presence.
In the end we once again face the reality that determination or claims of identity are often ephemeral as wilted flowers on a grave.
"The Man In The Glass Booth" continues at Off The Wall through March 24. Information can be obtained at offthewalltheatre.com.
With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.
He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.
This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as OnMilwaukee.com keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.
Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.