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Nazis and Soap: Myth or Fact?

Mon, 08/01/2022 - 14:56
Bob Gunton plays a Holocaust survivor, and Carolyn McCormick and John Rubinstein portray Holocaust scholars in "The Soap Myth" at the Southampton Cultural Center.

During the Nuremberg Trials, a laboratory assistant at the Danzig Anatomical Institute in Poland testified that soap had been made at the institute from the fat of corpses, testimony that supported the accusation that Nazis made soap from the bodies of their Jewish victims.

In 2002, the playwright Jeff Cohen, while running an Off Off Broadway theater, was approached by an elderly man who handed him a Manila envelope. Inside was a magazine called "Moments," containing an article about Morris Spitzer, a Holocaust survivor striving to establish the accusation as fact.

"My knowledge of the Holocaust was general, not specific," said Mr. Cohen during a phone conversation, "and I didn't know there was a controversy about the atrocity of soap." It took him six or seven years and hundreds of drafts before he was able to figure out how to turn that story into a play.

The result of his efforts is "The Soap Myth," which will have 15 performances at the Southampton Cultural Center starting Wednesday. While the play has had numerous readings and many iterations over the years, the Southampton version is the first theatrical production since 2012, and, said the playwright, "a premiere of this version of the play."

The production stars Bob Gunton, a two-time Tony award nominee ("Sweeney Todd," "Evita"), as a Holocaust survivor who enlists the help of a young journalist (Rachel Sachnoff) in his crusade. Two Holocaust scholars, played by John Rubinstein, a Tony and Drama Desk award winner, and Carolyn McCormick, a Drama Desk award winner, have reclassified the soap story from fact to myth.

Through the lenses of deadline reporting and journalistic integrity, the characters in the play are caught between many different versions of the same story. 

Michael Berenbaum, founding director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, has said, "I urge audiences to see 'The Soap Myth.' Experience it, interact with it, confront it, wrestle with it, engage it and challenge it."

The production is directed by Harris Yulin, whose awards include the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Director for "The Trip to Bountiful" and an Obie for his performance as Frank Lloyd Wright's mentor in "Frank's Home." Mr. Cohen himself is no slouch, having received Drama Desk, Lucille Lortel, Drama League, Outer Critics, and Obie awards.

Mr. Gunton, who was one of the stars of the film "The Shawshank Redemption," is making his first appearance onstage in the New York area in 30 years. "He's one of the great Broadway and film actors," said Mr. Cohen.

As for Mr. Yulin, he played the title character in Mr. Cohen's play "Squeaky," which had a reading at Guild Hall last year, and portrayed the Holocaust survivor in a reading of "The Soap Myth" last fall. "Everybody knows Harris as this phenomenal actor," Mr. Cohen said, "but he's also a great director."  

Performances will take place Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m., through Aug. 28. General seating is $55; premium seats are $80.

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