|Barry Levey Dixie Sheridan|
What’s the most sacred concept in American Jewish life today?
Religious ritual? Sex? Motherhood? Of course not; those topics are routinely mocked, often savagely.
Israel? Maybe, but there are plenty of voices willing to criticize, especially when there is no war.
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No, it’s the Holocaust. That seminal event quickly shuts even the most irreverent mouths, and it’s that nimbus of inviolability that makes the one-man play “Hoaxacaust! Written and performed by Barry Levey, with the generous assistance of The Institute of Political and International Studies, Tehran” so exciting.
It should be said right off that Mr. Levey takes the Holocaust very seriously, so seriously that he is able to poke fun at the excesses and trivializations to which it is subject. In the same way that “The Producers” used broad comedy as a weapon, “Hoaxacuast!” uses sharp satire to pierce the gasbags declaiming on the subject.
Part of the recent New York International Fringe Festival, where it won the Overall Excellence Award (an honor that Mr. Levey mentions more than once) and now playing at Baruch College, “Hoaxacaust!” takes on many thorny subjects in an astounding way – by challenging the audience to figure out what is true and what is not. That shouldn’t be a stretch in the theater – after all, most drama tells lies to tell a deeper truth – but Mr. Levey creates a character who is so engaging and likable that the truth becomes more difficult to discern.
Barry comes out on a bare stage, introducing himself with “Shmee Barry,” and reassuring the audience that the show they are about to see is not religious. “If you like Jon Stewart, you’re Jewish enough,” he says. Barry begins to talk about how he came to take the extraordinary journey that led to his entry into the Fringe Festival and his appearance on stage. It all started with his brother Howard’s upcoming marriage in Budapest to a woman of Franco-Algerian descent, or, as Barry’s Dominican boyfriend Anthony quotes Barry’s mother, to an Arab.
When Barry questions his mother about her reaction to Howard’s marriage, the conversation quickly turns to the Holocaust, as in, Howard is furthering Hitler’s plan by marrying a non-Jew. Soon trouble arises between Anthony and Barry, with Anthony accusing Barry of an addiction to victimhood, of constantly invoking the Holocaust and of basing his identity on persecution. In no time, Barry is daydreaming about how much better he would feel about himself if there had been no Holocaust. “Imagine how much easier life would be, being Jewish would be, if [the deniers] were right. If there were no Holocaust to make us feel like traitors for questioning Israel, or Hitlers for loving goys. If we could just, like, wish it away.”
Directed by Jeremy Gold Kronenberg, Mr. Levey plays all these roles with great comic flair, and although he describes himself as no actor, he clearly delineates all the voices in the show, which include his senile grandfather and various real-life figures, including David Irving and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Barry meets these figures on his whirlwind tour of renowned Holocaust deniers. Noting that Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism spike whenever Israel is at war, Barry suggests that Jews cannot afford to ignore what the world thinks about us.
If our response to every criticism is the Holocaust made us do it, then the people we are talking to have two choices: either agree and slink away or demand that we prove it. When people are predisposed not to believe something, it’s very hard to convince them otherwise.
There are more controversial and provocative ideas crammed into the 70-minute “Hoaxacaust!” than in most plays on or off-Broadway. Have American and Israeli Jews become dependent on the Holocaust for their identities? What will happen to that identity as we move further from the historical event and the eyewitnesses to it? Does Holocaust ignorance or denial equate to anti-Semitism? Are the Jews fated always to be a people apart? Is that feasible in an open and diverse society?
Mr. Levey takes the audience down a variety of twisted paths as he explores the netherworld of Holocaust denial, finding laughs in a lot of strange places. The questions he asks are serious, however. The Holocaust is the burden that the Jews cannot put down, but we have to find a way to prevent it from crushing us.
“Hoaxacaust!” is at the Baruch Performing Arts Center for two more performances – September 21st and 24th.