Holocaust denial collides with the First Amendment in Peter Sagal’s “Denial,” and the result is an absorbing, if flawed, play that looks as though it might be going places. If Sagal can deal with his script’s faults without interfering with its virtues, the strongly cast Long Wharf production might well have a successful Off Broadway run. At very least it should give rise to impassioned discussion.
At the play’s whirling vortex are Professor Bernard Cooper (Max Wright), who has gathered an alarmingly large following for his firmly held belief that the Holocaust is a hoax perpetuated by Jews; and Abigail Gersten (Bonnie Franklin), a New York-born Jewish lawyer now practicing in Southern California who, though abhorring the professor’s beliefs, opts to uphold his right to free speech after a federal agency batters down his door and confiscates his papers, including the list of addresses of people who subscribe to his rabble-rousing newsletter.
Right here there’s a double problem. Being the villain of the piece, the professor is by far the play’s most multifaceted character. The young Jewish lawyer (Geoffrey P. Cantor) representing the government refers to him as a “Sig Heil Mr. Chips,” Wright’s Cooper relishing it with quirky brilliance. On the other hand, Gersten, though played with considerable efficiency by Franklin, never becomes a complete person, remaining the straight man against whom the other characters bounce.
Who is this woman? We know far more about her black secretary, a law student played with humor and humanity by Starla Benford (though she is often saddled with unfortunate costumes including ballooning floor-length culottes). And apart from explaining that Gersten has links with the American Civil Liberties Union and a passionate belief in the First Amendment, the script never convincingly explains why she chooses to represent Cooper (she suffers for having done so, losing her other clients and receiving more than a few crank calls).
Sagal has also risked allowing a hint of self-pity to creep into “Denial” when Gersten, chatting with her secretary, draws parallels between Jews and blacks in the United States, suggesting that neither are fully accepted into society — that, at best, they are only tolerated. Somehow this scene doesn’t jibe with the clearly successful lawyer and well-adjusted woman Gersten is pictured as.
On the other hand, “Denial” displays considerable sophistication in its handling of the issue of free speech, one that’s very much in the news at the moment, not least in the movie industry.
And the play earns its description as a “legal thriller” when, in the second act, both the government and Gersten learn that they have been set upby the anti-Semitic professor — he wants to go to court to be given a national platform on which to discredit one of the world’s most celebrated recorders of the Holocaust (portrayed with real dignity by Alan Mandell) by bringing him face to face with another survivor from the same concentration camp (played with compelling simplicity by Sol Frieder). How Gersten copes with the situation once she realizes she’s been duped brings the play to a powerful climax.
Throughout “Denial” Sagal plays fair. His Cooper isn’t depicted as a raving monster — in many respects he’s all too sane and logical. And his Jewish characters aren’t saints — Mandell’s Noah Gomrowitz, who comes to blows with Cooper in one devastating scene, has a dark secret that could deeply discredit him. Which makes the play’s discussion of the right of free speech, even to the morally indefensible, all the more troubling and theatrically potent.
Arvin Brown has directed “Denial” with self-effacing intelligence, and Marjorie Bradley Kellogg’s set has an apt hall-of-justice air with its pillars and pediments, plus several podiums for press conferences (some of the play’s scenes overlap or are played simultaneously). There are moments in Sagal’s play when he fails to avoid a certain public-meeting preachiness in his dialogue. But this happens comparatively infrequently. “Denial” is a serious work of social comment, which is more than can be said of too many new plays.