Jewish Journal

In Defense of Evil

by Diane Arieff

Posted on May. 15, 1997 at 8:00 pm

Wendy Collins (left) plays a legal secretary for Madonna Magee (right), who plays a Jewish attorney defending the free speech rights of a man who denies that the Holocaust took place, in "Denial," an Actors Alley production, at the Storefront Theatre in North Hollywood.

In 'Denial,' characters probe the dark area where ethics,

law and emotion intersect

Abigail Gersten, one of the central characters in playwright Peter Sagal's "Denial," is an impassioned, fortyish First Amendment lawyer. She is also Jewish. When the American Civil Liberties Union asks her to defend Bernard Cooper, an academic and a rabid Holocaust denier, Gersten finds herself in the eye of an ethical and emotional storm. Which is worse? Permitting Cooper to disseminate his repellent message or stripping him of his legal right to free speech?

The play, now in previews and set to open next week, presents a compelling dilemma, made more intricate and challenging by the playwright's refusal to deal in moral absolutism. Cooper's revisionism may be revolting and, arguably, even dangerous, but it tests the envelope of a cherished freedom.

Sagal's other, less villainous characters also have to live with some disturbing choices. One, a prominent author who is a Holocaust survivor, owes his very survival to a haunting decision he made during the war.

In "Denial," the world is a painfully complex place, where even the good guys have skeletons in their closets.

"This play is almost Talmudic in its depth," said Jeremiah Morris, artistic director for Actors Alley, which is staging the production. "This lawyer who takes the case is Jewish. Her secretary, who is black, is shocked that she does so. The opposing lawyer is also Jewish.... We have a story here that is so intricate and involved.... As the director, the trick for me is to take a play that is very verbal, very rich in ideas, and make it work theatrically as a visual art -- to hide the exposition, so to speak."

Morris also directed the company's recent, well-received production of "The Puppetmaster of Lodz." His stage and television credits include "The Sunshine Boys," "The Prisoner of Second Avenue," "Harvey," "Quincy" and "Barney Miller." He is unabashedly passionate about Actors Alley, a well-respected, 25-year-old repertory company currently based in North Hollywood's Storefront Theatre.

"My vision, artistically, is to develop the kind of theater that can do anything that is brought to us -- burlesque, Mamet, Oscar Wilde, etc.," he said. "I want -- and forgive the cliché -- an eclectic theater in which the actors can do periods, styles, anything. ["Denial" cast member] Joe Garcia, for example, is one of the best actors in L.A. -- just spellbinding. So is Mimi Cozzens. This is a wonderful cast of actors."

The troupe is nothing if not resilient. In early 1994, Actors Alley was preparing to move into the El Portal, a 70-year-old movie palace that had been newly renovated as a multipurpose theater space. Those plans came to a shattering halt with the Northridge earthquake that January.

"To me, Actors Alley is the phoenix of Los Angeles," Morris said, referring to the group's ability to resurrect itself after the quake despite devastating damage. "We were, to my knowledge, the only theater in L.A. that was shut down immediately by that earthquake. We are still diddling and dealing with FEMA to get the money we were promised, and we won't relent.

"As a result of all that, we've been doing all our work in a small theater. It's good for the audience in the sense that every seat is close, but the stage is tight. We're forced to be quite inventive, and I think we've succeeded." A series of Dramalogue and Valley Theater League awards confirm his assessment.

When the long-awaited El Portal does open next year, it will house three performance spaces, including a 375-seat venue.

Sagal has already optioned "Denial" to Paramount Pictures. In the meantime, Morris and company are set to stage the play's West Coast première in the relatively closer quarters of their current space, perhaps an ideal venue for a piece that probes the dark spaces where intellect and passion collide.

"Denial" runs from May 23 through July 13 at the Storefront Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. For tickets, call (818) 508-4200.

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