Credit: Michael Brosilow

The program for the new play Truman and the Birth of Israel, written by William Spatz under the name David Cohen, includes a time line that covers no less than 132 years, from the birth of Harry S. Truman’s mother (1852) to the 33rd president’s posthumous receipt of the United States Congressional Gold Medal (1984). Along the way it bullet-points 38 events as diverse as Truman’s high school graduation (1901) and Mao Zedong’s victory in China (1949).

The list is copious and all but useless—loads of information amounting to nothing. The same is true of the script, except that the information given there isn’t necessarily factual.

Spatz sets his fictionalized version of history in 1953, at Truman’s home in Independence, Missouri. Harry (Tim Kough) has been out of office for a year, and he’s thinking of suing a Jewish journalist who wrote a withering review of a concert by former first daughter Margaret Truman, a would-be singer. A young Bella Abzug (Catherine Dvorak)—the future feminist congresswoman from New York—has been dispatched to see the great man in her capacity as a lawyer. Her objective: to talk him out of the suit, which, she contends, is sure to open a can of worms, especially with regard to Truman’s attitude toward Jews and the Jewish state.

Spatz and director Randy White proceed to open that can of worms, in what I guess must be an attempt to (a) evoke Truman’s complexity and (b) justify the existence of Israel. Some interesting stuff slithers out. I didn’t know (and this part’s true) that Harry’s wife, Bess, refused to allow Jews across her threshold, even though Harry’s prepolitics business partner was Jewish. But the overall impression is of a squirming mess of polemics trying to pass for drama. An awkward last-minute attack on the audience’s Holocaust heartstrings is worse than merely maudlin or failed—it’s grotesque.   v