Sticks and Stones...

Mel Gibson. Michael Richards. Isaiah Washington. Don Imus (how's that for topical?). These celebrities have all made headlines within the last year for their scandalous use of language. They are all in varying degrees of hot water for their various expressions of anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, sexism, etc. Most of us probably shrug them off as either idiotic or pathetic and take comfort in the fact that none of it affects us personally. But what if it did? What if an act of speech were so ugly, so offensive, so potentially harmful that legal action might be necessary? That is the question posed by Peter Sagal's play Denial, making its New York debut at Metropolitan Playhouse.

Denial follows attorney Abigail Gersten (Suzanne Toren), whose dedication to the law is so strong that she decides to defend one Bernard Cooper (H. Clark Kee), a noted Holocaust denier. Of course, denying the Holocaust is not against the law in this country. (In Europe it is a different matter, as promotional materials for the play remind us that David Irving was imprisoned last year in Austria for just such a claim.)

In a potentially illegal search and seizure, authorities have attained evidence they claim links Cooper to hate crimes and organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. This could very well be an actionable offense. Gersten, however, sees an egregious violation of Cooper's First and Fourth Amendment rights. Despite his repellent views, she takes his case, albeit very reluctantly. Oh, and Gersten is Jewish herself, which exponentially complicates matters.

Sagal, a minor celebrity as host of NPR's "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me!," chose quite an explosive subject matter for his 1995 play, which, if anything, is only more relevant today. This topic is simply bursting with potential for intellectual and dramatic power.

It is a pity, then, that Denial takes so long to get going. Most of the first act is awash in endless exposition, a few clichés, and a lot of unnecessary explanation of Just. How. Important. And. Thorny. This. Issue. Is. Especially indicative of the play's dramaturgical infelicities is a clunky sequence of scenelets that cut between various locales and characters for only a line or two at a time. It quite tries (no pun intended) the patience.

The poorness of the script's first half also weighs down the earnest production. Alex Roe's direction lacks a certain tautness, and the actors seem no more than their characters' types (e.g., the devoted assistant, the self-righteous adversary). The notable exception is Toren, whose attorney so commands every scene she is in that one has no doubt she does the same in court.

Fortunately, things change in the second half. The play and production pick up steam, getting to the conflict that we've been waiting for. As things heat up, so do the actors. Kee's Cooper presents his anti-Holocaust arguments in such an ingeniously insidious manner that Gersten's (and possibly the audience's) faith in orthodox history is shaken for a moment. Further showdowns and complications make a case for this play as great drama. Particularly memorable is a gripping scene between noted Holocaust survivor/author Noah Gomrowitz (Martin Novemsky) and the mysterious Nathan (John Tobias). Novemsky awakens a powerful stage presence, previously dormant, and Tobias is profoundly affecting. To give away any more, though, would be criminal.

Melissa Estro's costumes and the set design (uncredited) offer an effective grounding in realism that does not get in the way of Roe's occasional theatrical flourishes. Maryvel Bergen's lights make this switch between naturalism and a very red expressionism with nary a hitch.

It is not spoiling anything, though, to say that with the ending, the play goes off course again. Immediately after scenes of highly effective drama, the playwright gives us a resolution so pat that it betrays the complicated nature of the story at hand. And while Toren and the others struggle valiantly to make us care, the finale leaves one wondering what all the fuss was for.

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