Was the thirty-third president of the United States, Harry Truman, anti-Semitic? Hard to say, but one might reply “no more than the previous thirty two presidents.” But if you were to press the issue, would his support (or lack thereof) for Israel be the most appropriate measuring stick? And could this question possibly provide enough tension to support a two act play? Truman And The Birth Of Israel (a world premier play written by Greenhouse Theater Center President William Spatz) answers with a resounding no. Harry Truman’s possible anti-Semitism, as conceptualized here, is simply not compelling enough to draw the viewer in. I suspect that even the most stringent historian would agree.
The plot unfolds under the guise of the former president preparing for a civil lawsuit (he plans on suing a journalist for slander). Defending Truman are two lawyers; one a tough talking feminist lawyer with a strong Yiddish accent (played well by Catherine Dvorak) and the other a gentile with an open hatred for his client (Andrew J. Pond). In a format best described as a never ending deposition, the two lawyers put Truman on the defensive for everything from his war record to his casual bigotry (which is most telling in his usual refusal to allow Jews to enter his home). The second act of the play focuses almost entirely on Truman’s role in the creation of Israel.
Tim Kough is convincing enough as Harry Truman and the play definitely moves better when it allows for him to show (as oppose to tell) a few highlights of the president’s life. And there are more than a few interesting historical tidbits strewn about. For example, who knew that Harry Truman once worked as a Shabbos goy (a gentile who helps out religious families on the Sabbath)? Credit should also go to Andrew J. Pond for his truly emotional and convincing retelling of a Holocaust horror story. But ultimately this is a production without enough legs to stand up a stool. At one point in the play a character smartly says “Jews love plays, especially plays about Jews.” As a Jew, I would like to think we also like plays with dramatic intrigue, snappy dialogue, and true character development.
Bottom Line: Truman and The Birth of Israel is only recommended for those with a strong interest in the history of the creation of Israel. It is playing now through November 18 at the Greenhouse’s Upstairs Main Stage (2257 North Lincoln). Tickets are $32-$35 and can be purchased at the greenhousetheater website or by calling (773) 404-7336.