The psychological cat-and-mouse game between Adolph Eichmann and the Israeli Mossad agent who captured the Nazi fugitive in Argentina in 1960 gives the world preem of Broadway-aimed “Captors” its dramatic juice. But when you go beyond these two compelling figures, the show treads on familiar melodramatic turf using conventional exposition, lurking violence and thinly drawn supporting characters. Still, the real-life story of the capture of the Nazi in charge of transporting Jews to death camps is a strong tale that could find continued life in the regionals.
That’s especially true if the production is as well played, designed and staged as the show’s bow at Beantown’s Huntington Theater Company, where it’s rivetingly thesped by leads Michael Cristofer and Louis Cancelmi under helmer Peter DuBois (whose sensitive hand last guided “Sons of the Prophet” from Boston to Gotham).
Play opens with Eichmann’s capture on the outskirts of Buenos Aires by a small band of Israeli agents, who hustle him away to a safehouse. The challenge is to get Eichmann to OK his own exit to Israel to stand trial; otherwise, the international community will come down hard on the young country for a kidnapping on foreign soil.
Playwright Evan M. Wiener was inspired by the book “Eichmann in My Hands,” by Peter Z. Malkin and Harry Stein, and structures his play as an elderly Malkin (Cancelmi) begins to write his memoirs with a co-author named Cohn (Daniel Eric Gold). Cohn’s purpose is to fill in exposition for the aud and to raise questions on Malkin’s story as the play jumps back and forth in time between the tale and the teller. It’s an obvious device but nevertheless connects in the end with both protagonists’ desperate need to tell their stories to the world.
The two other Israeli agents (Christopher Burns, Ariel Shafir) have little character to play and merely act as narrative stick figures. A mysterious cough for Malkin’s superior officer is as much of a character trait as Wiener allows for these fellows.
The power of the production centers on the leading thesps’ chops as Malkin and Eichmann (Cristofer) play mind games with each other, all the while masking their real selves. Cancelmi is a cool study in restraint, charm and analysis as Malkin, whose role in the mission is also as a makeup artist to disguise Eichmann for his quick exit out of the country.
But Eichmann is not the only one working under a false face. Malkin’s hatred of his subject must be hidden as he needs to intrigue, understand and even befriend his enemy in order to accomplish his goal by the ticking-clock deadline.
Cristofer is mesmerizing as Eichmann, who declares that “I killed no one — ever” and “Had I been born Jewish, I’d have been the most fervent Zionist.” It’s a brilliant, shape-shifting perf that shows shades of vulnerability, craftiness and imperiousness, as well as a need to tell a story that ultimately brings the Nazi down. Perf also lifts “Captors” up.