On the Phone With Tom Dugan

On the Phone With Tom Dugan

Tom Dugan wears many hats. And we’re not just talking about the baseball cap he usually sports. As actor and playwright, he is a master of the one-man biographical drama, having written plays on Confederate general Robert E. Lee and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. His latest on Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal has won acclaim for the author in its Off-Broadway premiere and is a 90-minute tour de force for the actor seven shows a week. Surprisingly, Wiesenthal marks the New York theater debut of actor Dugan, a fact that is not lost on the New Jersey native, who at a young age decided to launch his career not in the golden city across the Hudson, but in the golden hills of Hollywood.

Francis Lewis: It's taken you a while, but you're finally making your New York stage debut in Wiesenthal. So, how does it feel?

Tom Dugan: When I left Montclair University and drove towards California, I always looked over my shoulder, and said, ‘Jeez, maybe I’m going in the wrong direction.’ So, I’m finally making a U-turn and returning to New York. I’m thrilled.

FL: Wiesenthal's a monumental undertaking, isn’t it?

TD: It is. Every time I write a play, it’s not a small matter. It takes me about two to three years from page to stage.

FL: Wiesenthal died in 2005, had you thought about writing a play about him before that?

TD: It wasn’t until I read his obituary in the Los Angeles Times that I really became fascinated. I knew about his Nazi hunting, and that he had brought 1,100 war criminals to justice over a period of 50 years. But that he was [also] a magnificent teacher of tolerance that was the thing that really got me interested in writing a play about him. I think his greatest gift to mankind was his teaching.

FL: Was there a eureka moment when you thought that you—not only as a playwright but also as an actor—were the right fit?

TD: There was. My father was a decorated World War II veteran. He received the bronze battle star and the Purple Heart. Since I began writing plays, probably in the mid-90s, I’ve always wanted to honor my father’s participation in World War II. I might have been 9 or 10, and we were watching a movie about World War II, and my mother said, Your father did that. The movie was Battleground, about the Battle of the Bulge. My father had been wounded, and he still carried shrapnel in his hip. I felt the shrapnel in his hip, and I said, You must really hate Germans. He said, No, I don’t judge people by the group they belong to. I judge them by how they behave. That didn’t sit well with me. I didn’t understand it at that young age. Years later, there I was reading Wiesenthal’s obituary, which talked about his rejection of collective guilt. That was my aha moment. That’s what my father meant, the rejection of collective guilt. I thought, I’m going to write about this. I can play this. That was one of those organic moments when you can connect the beginnings of your life, the beginnings of your thought process, with what you do as a mature man.

FL: Which part of Wiesenthal’s life do you focus on, or is it a broad sweep?

TD: It is a retrospect of his work, but it’s not a lecture: It’s a drama, there are stakes, and there is a time limit. It’s his final meeting with his final group of students in his Vienna documentation office. He’s retiring that day. He’s got a lead on the final Nazi he wants to catch. He has an important message he wants to convey to that audience right now before he walks out the door. So, it cranks up the stakes. Certainly, it’s part memoir, but it’s a spy thriller as well. All theatre has to have urgency. I learned that lesson when I was writing one of my first one-man plays while touring with Jack Klugman in On Golden Pond. I had a reading of the play, Robert E. Lee: Shades of Gray, and I was playing the part as well. I said, so, Jack, what did you think? He said (you know he had that raspy voice), Nothing’s f***ing happened. Something’s got to f***ing happen. From that moment on I never made that mistake again. From then on, any play I write has got to have urgency to it.

FL: God bless Jack Klugman for his frankness.

TD: You could always depend on him for that. What happens [in Wiesenthal] is there’s a series of phone calls, a series of things that happen during this “lecture.” He tries to figure things out with the audience’s help. It’s very urgent. It’s interactive. I’m not asking the audience to talk but they’re very much in it. I’m figuring things out while very much looking at them. It’s magical actually.

FL: What is there about you that is most Wiesenthal like and what about you that is not?

TD: I would say the thing that makes me most comfortable in playing him and that I readily find in myself is a sense of humor. Wiesenthal was an amateur stand-up comedian before the war. He understood how to keep an audience. It’s quite a trick to engage, entertain an audience with such a dark subject matter. Wiesenthal succeeded in doing that over 50 years of learning and making mistakes. By the time the audience gets to see him in this play, he’s at his best. Audiences always shake their heads when they leave [the play], they say, I can’t believe it was so funny and so entertaining and so uplifting. My sense of humor and Wiesenthal’s sense of humor are pretty compatible. And that has been the No. 1 misperception I’ve had to overcome when I talk about the play. When I had my first meeting with [producer] Daryl Roth two months ago, she asked me, what’s the most important thing I need to know about this play? I said, this play is not a drag. She came back and said, oh, that’s too bad. I do drag so well.

FL: Sounds like an instant rapport.

TD: It was. She’s a charming lady. I’m so lucky to be in her company.

FL: How extensive wa your research?

TD: I had access to the archives at the Wiesenthal Center. Adaire Klein at the Center was very helpful in pointing me in the right directions as to what books to consult. I’d hang out there, and there would be volunteers who would also show me things. They were survivors themselves. They would tell me their stories in such a frank, nontragic tone that I really found Wiesenthal’s voice. The worst thing I could have done would have been to lace every line with tragedy. Who wants that for 85 minutes?

FL: Is it important that you look and sound convincingly like Wiesenthal onstage?

TD: That leads into the other half of the question that I didn’t answer before: What is the greatest difference between the two of us? He was 95, I’m 53. He was a Jewish Holocaust survivor from Austria. I am a Catholic actor from New Jersey. So it’s quite a stretch. I have a full head of hair. He didn't, so, I shave the top of my head. I do about an hour of old-age makeup. It’s kind of like a Zen thing. I’m having a very realistic fat suit made to put on because Wiesenthal was about 60-70 pounds heavier than I am. It’s so funny to stand there with a designer and talk about the characteristics of fat. It hangs over here, bunches over there. I have a fitting for my new fat suit tomorrow. It’s not just a matter of stuffing a pillow down my pants; it’s really quite a design that goes with it. I work with Jenny Sullivan, my wonderful director. We work on the walk and I have an expert dialect coach. When it all comes together, it’s quite an impression that is made. Sometimes I’ll do talkbacks afterward, and I’ll come out like me, in my baseball cap. I remember one lady was kind of pissed off. When’s he coming out? You love that kind of reaction because it’s quite a transformation.

FL: The outward appearance helps you get into the character …

TD: Absolutely. I look in the mirror and good luck not feeling like a 95-year-old Jewish Holocaust survivor.

FL: Olivier was also concerned about the outside of a character.

TD: The nose was his thing. He just loved the nose. Olivier’s mentioned in the play because he played Wiesenthal in The Boys From Brazil. There’s a bit of a joke in my play about that.

FL: Since you wear both hats, author and actor, do you ever get into fights with yourself? Does the actor ever say to the playwright, you’ve given me very little to work with here?

TD: I have had the who-writes-this-shit moment. The interesting thing is I really do have to change my hats. I can’t bring my playwright mind into the rehearsal process. I have to take the script, hand it to the director and stand there like an actor who’s just been hired for the job. Jenny Sullivan [director] and I have worked together many times, and we each trust the other’s process to be syncopated. When she gives notes after a run-thru, I can flip my hat from the playwright side and address things that she points out [to me the actor]. I can only do that because I trust her.

FL: Is Wiesenthal still relevant?

TD: The bad news is that intolerance, unfortunately, will always be relevant. The good news is that whenever a new front page comes out, my play is even more relevant. The theme of the play is not the past. The past is an example that is used to teach about the future and to enlighten people of all ages who come to the theater to look out for the danger signs for when this kind of thing can happen in a society so that we don’t just relive the past. You see it in Syria, you see it in Isis. We have some very jolting moments in the script where Wiesenthal talks about 9/11, Khadafi, Bin Laden. People came running to Wiesenthal after 9/11. The human savage is a theme that will always live within us and is always wrestling to get out and fighting against organized society. So the play is always, always current. It’s not just a Jewish story, and he makes that very clear. Wiesenthal took a lot of flak from others in the Jewish community. Eli Wiesel, for one. Wiesenthal focused on not only the Jewish Holocaust victims but also gypsies, homosexuals, Soviets, Jehovah’s Witnesses. That’s why his work stands the test of time.

FL: Relevance seems to be a thread that runs through your one-man plays about Robert E. Lee and Frederick Douglass. What is it about the one-person play that appeals to you?

TD: There are many things. To go back to the very beginning: I was in a pretty terrific acting class here in Hollywood with a well-known teacher, Howard Fine. I was doing scene after scene with a great group. But something happened where I started to get stage fright. I couldn’t remember any of my lines. It happens to every actor. I know many actors who have given up acting because of it. I thought, I either have to run away or just dive into the mouth of the beast. So, I wrote my first one-man play, which was about the scariest … First of all, I wasn’t a writer. Second of all, to stand up there alone is about as frightening as anyone could imagine. So I jumped right into the mouth of the beast and I grabbed it by the horns and I’ve been doing it ever since because I got over my stage fright. I think all theater is magical, but I think the one-man, one-woman show has just a little bit more magic to it. Because when the audience first sits down, there’s an actor playing Teddy Roosevelt or whoever, but within three minutes or so your fantasy takes over and you feel like you’re actually in the room with that guy. That’s what I like so much about it. As long as you crank up the urgency, which is the main problem with most solo performances. You don’t have a play, but a presentation. But in my plays there’s always urgency. In the Frederick Douglass piece, he’s writing his autobiography, which he did many times, but this time he’s in Haiti and there’s a mob at the bottom of the hill that gets louder and louder throughout the play. What he doesn’t realize is that they’re coming to kill him. On the first page, you light the fuse, and you’ve got 90 minutes before the dynamite goes off.

FL: Who knows, even though your home is in Los Angeles, maybe this time you’ll want to stay East longer.

TD: I only want [Wiesenthal] to run longer than The Fantasticks [Off-Broadway's longest-running show]. Every five years I’ll have to make the fat suit smaller, because the fat will all be real.

» Wiesenthal, written by and starring Tom Dugan, Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd St., btw Ninth & 10th aves., 212.239.6200