As Stanley Milgram's fake, electrical-shock experiments showed several decades ago, many of us, when put into a position of power, may end up wielding our newfound authority with a tinge of sadism.
Michael Halperin, who wrote "All Steps Necessary," a new Holocaust-themed play being staged by the Inkwell Theater, concurs with Milgram. Taking place just after Kristallnacht, his play dramatizes a meeting of Nazi leaders and their formal response to the fallout from the pogrom.
"When people get that much power, the danger is you become part of the mechanism, even believing that kind of philosophy," says Halperin, who has written a number of books on screenwriting as well as several plays. He says of Goebbels, Goering and Gen. Heydrich, "They act like monsters, but they're human beings."
Elliot Shoenman, artistic director of the Inkwell, came across the transcript of this meeting of Nazi brass as he was doing research for "Nobody's Business," a new book he has written about his father, a Holocaust survivor who later took his life. Shoenman, who won an Emmy for his work on "The Cosby Show," then commissioned Halperin to write the play, a one-act set in one space: Goering's living room.
The play may be set in Goering's living room, but, in many ways, Goebbels is the star. Where the other officials are dressed in formal military attire or suits, Goebbels arrives looking like Bugsy Siegel, equal parts gangster and matinee idol, with his jauntily tilted fedora, leather jacket perched on his shoulders and camel coat underneath. He can't be bored with the economic consequences of Kristallnacht, chiding his fellow Nazis, "Goddamn it, I didn't come here to discuss insurance."
If Goebbels, played with great charisma by Michael Oberlander, can not deign to discuss matters of commerce, the rest of the Nazis are consumed with monetary matters, a grand irony, given the Nazi claim that Jews are obsessed with money.
Halperin and director Jim Ortlieb do a nice job of revealing little secrets about each one of the men in the room: Goebbels' affair with a Czech actress, Goering's preferential treatment toward his favorite Jews, Heydrich's rumored Jewish lineage. The playwright pits these men against one another with discrete French scenes in different corners of the room, such as the pastry table and the wine area. On occasion, discussions occur behind closed double-doors.
If the different pols have their own agenda, they are united in the manner by which they refer to their enemy. To them, he is always "the Jew." No one speaks with more contempt of the Jew than Oberlander's Goebbels, the only Nazi adorned with a swastika armband. The actor, who is Jewish and whose parents are Holocaust survivors, smirks with utter disdain when he says, "The Jew has no temperament for battle," reminding us once again of Milgram's experiment and the sadism lurking in each of us.
"All Steps Necessary" plays now through June 4 at 2100 Square Feet, 5615 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles. $20 (adults) $15 (seniors) 8 p.m. (Fridays and Saturdays) 2 p.m. (Sundays). For tickets, call (866) 811-4111 or visit www.inkwelltheater.com.