“Truman and the Birth of Israel” is a politically wonkish tale about a fictional encounter between the retired 33rd President and a young, future congresswoman, Bella Abzug (Catherine Dvorak).
At this point she is a rising New York attorney already showing a penchant for championing Zionist, feminist and civil rights ideals that will be her trademark in later years.
The action takes place in the home study and garden of Harry S. Truman (Tim Kough). Abzug has been assigned to represent “Give’m Hell Harry” in a libel action the former President intends to initiate against an East Coast newspaper reporter who has allegedly defamed him by insulting his daughter’s singing talent.
Truman’s law firm assigns Bella Abzug to the case presumably because both she and the reporter are Jewish. Abzug feels certain that the defense will attack Truman for his past anti-Semitism and sets out to understand the complexities of a man who was once a card carrying member of the KKK but is also credited with helping to make the State of Israel a possibility.
They are joined in this encounter by a fictional assistant Don Muller (Andrew J. Pond) who has a personal interest in the President’s position on the idea of a Jewish homeland.
The trio is also joined briefly by Truman’s old friend and notably Jewish former business partner in the haberdashery business, Eddie Jacobson (Peter Nerad).
A world premiere production by Chicago playwright, businessman and philanthropist, David Cohen (aka William Spatz) offered by Forum Productions under the capable direction of Randy White, “Truman and the Birth of Israel” is laden with interesting, somewhat scandalous and scintillating historic tidbits but not without a few bumps in the road.
The performance takes off at a pretty good gallop setting a reasonable premise to guide the dialog. The background information about Truman’s personal history certainly informs the subtext of his alleged anti-Semitism including the cultural and political context in which it existed.
But the action begins to falter as the playwright grapples with explaining the nuances and various details relating to the Zionist movement and Truman’s part representing American interests.
In short, there were a lot of moving parts that included a number of missteps and poor judgments by Truman which may or may not have been purposeful or subconscious. Clearly some were misinformed and misguided, especially when viewed with the benefit of hindsight.
In the end, the author more-or-less admits that these are complex issues that must be dealt with by fallible and complex human individuals.
Perhaps in future iterations of this play Cohen may find a way to get to the essence of the matter a little more simply. It seems there are about three different plays going on.
The piece about Truman was pretty good and Tim Kough did a fine job of breathing some life into his character who takes quite a browbeating from the two attorneys.
Dvorak’s feisty “Battling Bella” Abzug portrayal gave most of the energy to this production which made me think that in another universe this could have turned into a play about her.
The issue of Truman’s part in regard to the establishment of Israel was clearly the author’s passion but seemed to turn into a PowerPoint lecture in the second act.
It’s tough to edit out things you think are interesting. I get that. But there are too many facts presented too quickly to make this part an enjoyable theater experience.
Pond as Don Muller, did his best to work with an awkward role. At his big moment he was literally upstaged by Kough which was unintentional I am sure, just poor blocking.
I also felt like this moment was telegraphed from the beginning and was not the pivotal surprise that was intended. The offstage audio added little in my opinion. This scene is important for creating a dramatic high point but basically came off ill conceived.
The set by David SS Davis, costumes by Kate Setzer Kaumphausen and properties by Nova Grayson Casillo did a lot to capture the post WWII period though Cohen’s dialogue went a bit too contemporary at times.
The opening newsreel was very effective but after that I found the use of projected images to be gimmicky and something of a crutch.
I have an interest in historical and political subject matter so I found the text insightful.
There was a good deal of relevance when compared to the current social and political climate. It was helpful toward trying to further understand the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East including how and why it affects us as Americans.
In summary, the play has merit as written. While the first act was enjoyable, the second act was a bit convoluted but both were well performed overall. If you are interested in the subject matter you will be happy to see this.
DETAILS: “Truman and the Birth of Israel” is at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, through Nov. 18, 2018. For tckets and other information call (773)404-7336 or visit Greenhouse Theater.
For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago