Chicago Theatre Review
‘Ben Hecht Show’ Interesting, albeit Dry
Ben Hecht – legendary playwright, screenwriter, and activist who, after a noted career as a journalist at the Chicago Journal and Chicago Daily News, wrote such noted works as “The Front Page,” “Gone with the Wind,” “Notorious,” and “Spellbound,” while advocating for civil rights and fighting anti-Semitism – was a uniquely fascinating figure of the 20th century, and it is fine and proper that he is being honored on the stage in “The Ben Hecht Show,” a one-man play written by and starring Chicago actor James Sherman.
It is saddening, therefore, that despite Sherman’s obvious affection for Hecht and the passions that went into producing the show, the results are less than enthralling. Staged in Hecht’s study circa 1943, the play is entirely composed of Hecht’s own writings (in addition to his journalism and screenplays, Hecht wrote a number of autobiographical works), and over its 90 minutes, Sherman’s Hecht muses about Jewish identity, his childhood in Racine, Wisconsin, and the realities of anti-Semitism.
Hecht was indeed a beautiful writer – in his notes accompanying the show, Sherman writes of how Hecht’s usage of “legerdemain” inspired him to create the play – but his writings for the page, particularly about a topic as nuanced as Jewishness in 20th century America, do not make for a seamless transition to the stage, and that proves the central problem to “The Ben Hecht Show.” As acted by Sherman, Hecht’s complex sentences and asides bog down the action, especially in the show’s opening 30 minutes; as a result, the play begins to feel less like a work of theater and more like a public reading of Hecht’s thoughts and philosophies, and the effect is one of dry awkwardness.
There are captivating moments in the show – Hecht’s anecdote about catching frogs in Racine’s wetlands; the irony of Jews owning all the major Hollywood production companies but never allowing Jewish actors on the screen; and Hecht’s heroic efforts at mobilizing America’s Jewish community to raise awareness about the Holocaust – but because there is little in the form of plot and pacing (we never learn about Hecht’s marriages or children, for instance, and his screenwriting career is but a footnote), the audience is never given a central thread to hold onto.
Watching “The Ben Hecht Show,” I thought back to another one-man play, one that Sherman should consider – “Churchill,” the 2015 show at the Greenhouse Theater that featured Ronald Keaton as the prime minister. Though Keaton borrowed extensively from his subject for the play’s text (the man’s various witticisms and statements were heavily sprinkled throughout), Keaton supplemented that source material with his own writing, which brought Churchill to life on the stage, rather than relegating him to the page; one wishes that Hecht received the same treatment in his own play.
Reviewed by Peter Thomas Ricci
Running through July 17, presented by Grippo Stage Company at Piven Theatre at Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St, Evanston
Tickets are available by visiting grippostagecompany.com or by calling 800-838-3006.
Additional information about this and other spectacular area productions is available at the one, the only, the indefatigable www.theatreinchicago.com.