The Avenger


How do the children of Holocaust survivors inherit their parents’ trauma?

In Marsha Lee Sheiness’ new play, “Second Hand Smoke,” based on the novel by Thane Rosenbaum, a rage-filled ex-Nazi hunter, Duncan Katz, battles to overcome his parents’ horrific legacy as he journeys from New York to Poland to meet the brother he never knew. Dylan McDermott, star of TV’s “The Practice” and “Dark Blue,” leads a dozen member cast under the direction of Robert Kalfin in a staged reading Monday night at the JCC in Manhattan.

When “Second Hand Smoke” was published in 1999, it was hailed by Sanford Pinsker of the Wall Street Journal as “superb, if deeply disturbing writing … a portrait of a man at war with the ghosts of the Holocaust and himself.” The novel became part of an emerging genre of second-generation Holocaust literature, which included works by the German short story writer Katja Berens, Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol and American graphic novelist Art Spiegelman.

Rosenbaum teaches human rights at Fordham University Law School and, in addition to his fiction and non-fiction writing, is a prolific journalist, with major articles in this newspaper and in many other national publications.

McDermott told The Jewish Week that Duncan is a “brutal character who is obsessed, single-minded and haunted with violence, sorrow and hurt. He’s searching for the perpetrator both on the outside and on the inside. He’s such a complete character, deeply scarred and traumatized. There’s so much meat on the bone.” McDermott hopes that the audience will feel “rattled, shaken and devastated” at the end of the evening.

Sheiness has written more than a dozen plays, but is best known for “Monkey Monkey Bottle of Beer, How Many Monkeys Have We Here?” a 1975 drama about five mothers of mentally disabled children who have entered their offspring into a medical experiment in an attempt to increase their intelligence.

In Rosenbaum’s novel, Sheiness noted that she was especially drawn to the character of Mila (Marilyn Chris), Duncan’s hard-as-nails mother in Miami Beach who raises him to avenge the Holocaust, and who, in Sheiness’ words, “could not afford love, because love is death.”

The playwright praised McDermott as the perfect actor for the role of Duncan. “Dylan brings all the energy and intensity that Thane intended the character to be, as well as the heart that he finds at the end.” The trauma of the Holocaust, she said, will continue “as long as there’s one person left who has a story or attitude to tell.”

“Second Hand Smoke” will be performed on Monday, Nov. 1 at 7 p.m. at the JCC in Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Ave. at 76th Street. For tickets, $10, call the box office at (646) 505-5708.