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In ‘Ben Hecht Show’ famous writer discovers true Jewish identity

Playwright-actor James Sherman stars in "The Ben Hecht Show" at the Piven Theatre in Evanston.

First, a few things you should know about Ben Hecht. He was born in New York in 1894, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants who later moved to Racine, Wisconsin. At the age of 16 he ran away to Chicago where he became a hot-shot reporter covering (as he described it) the city’s “haunted streets, whorehouses, police stations, courtrooms, theater stages, jails, saloons, slums, madhouses, fires, murders, riots, banquet halls, and bookshops,” and where, following World War I, he worked in Berlin as a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

By 1928 he was living the high life in New York, with a smash hit play, “The Front Page” (written in collaboration with his pal, Charles MacArthur) making him the toast of Broadway. He would go on to pen many books, and, not surprisingly, move to Hollywood where he wrote or collaborated on more than 70 (many legendary) screenplays for such directors as Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Howard Hawks and William Wyler.

We learn much of this in “The Ben Hecht Show,” a fascinating new one-man play written and performed by James Sherman (among whose many popular plays is “The God of Isaac,” about his years growing up in Skokie and confronting his identity as an American Jew in the late 1970s). But it is just background for the real subject of this 95-minute piece now in a Grippo Stage Company production at Piven Theatre. It is the lesser known Hecht that intrigues Sherman as he explores the man’s gradual and unexpected understanding of who he was as a Jew, what Judaism is all about, and why anti-Semitism has been such a pervasive form of hatred for millennia.

‘THE BEN HECHT SHOW’

Highly recommended

When: Through Aug. 14

Where: PivenTheater,

927 Noyes, Evanston

Tickets: $35

Info: (800) 838-3006;

http://www.grippostagecompany.com

Run time: 95 minutes

with no intermission

Playwright-actor James Sherman stars “The Ben Hecht Show” at the Piven Theatre in Evanston. (Photo: Dan Vanasek)
Playwright-actor James Sherman stars “The Ben Hecht Show” at the Piven Theatre in Evanston. (Photo: Dan Vanasek)

Based on Hecht’s books, “A Guide For the Bedevilled” and the autobiographical “A Child Of the Century,” and directed by Dennis Zacek, the show homes in on the moment when, in 1941 – by the time Hitler had murdered about two million of the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust – he was approached to join the Fight for Freedom Committee. Until then the quintessential “assimilated” American Jew, who claimed he had never experienced anti-Semitism (even if he sensed some fault lines in New York’s high society), Hecht, along with a fractious (what else?) gathering of Jewish artists and writers were asked to become activists working for the rescue of Jewish refugees from the Nazis, lobbying for entry into the war, and supporting the establishment of a Jewish state.

Hecht also began pondering this question: How, in the face of so much oppression, has this relatively tiny part of the world’s population managed to thrive, and in an almost Houdini-like way, survive all efforts to render it extinct? He came to this conclusion: God doesn’t really have anything to do with it. But it was the mind that could conceive of an all-powerful God that held the key.

That might be too high-flown a concept for some, but Sherman brings things back to a more comprehensible level when he looks at Hollywood. Yes, Jews were the animating force in the movie business, but for decades (at least during Hecht’s tenure there), they were the unseen forces as producers, writers, marketing types. There were very few Jewish actors on screen, and that was because of an innate understanding of the latent anti-Semitism in the wider world. (Hecht could not have known about the quip by Jill Schary, daughter of Golden Age producer Dore Schary, who said the Jews of Hollywood got their revenge by devising the happy ending – a notion that would drive people crazy for years.)

Sherman does a fine job of bringing Hecht’s self-deprecating form of self-realization into play as he opens the door to serious questions but never forgets the advice he was given about always injecting humor into his arguments. The chronology of the show can be a bit murky at times (a program insert with crucial dates and people would be helpful), but the storytelling is engaging. And the story could not be more timely.