The man we know (and love) as Lou Grant is on the phone, and for someone who grew up addicted to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and it's more dramatic spinoff, it’s tempting to talk newspapers with Ed Asner.
But, no, he has another topic on his mind. Asner leads the cast of “The Soap Myth,” a powerful Holocaust play by New York writer Jeff Cohen that ends an East Coast tour with readings at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan on Tuesday and at Hofstra University on Thursday, Feb. 1. It’s a difficult play about a little known but horrific atrocity thought to have been committed by the Nazis, and while the play offers no definitive answers, Asner says it “does a good job of furthering the truth.”
In a phone interview from California, Asner says he was drawn to the play “because it’s a wonderful account of the little guy winning over the big guy.”
Never shy about sharing opinions — his new book “The Grouchy Historian” (Simon & Schuster) challenges the right wing’s approach to the Constitution — Asner, who is 88, says his biggest hope for this play is that audiences recognize the need “to question authority.”
“It takes a lot of courage to put this play on,” says Cohen, who started it in 2002 when a man gave him an article detailing efforts to get historians to validate his belief that the Nazis made soap from some of their victims.
Haunted by the story, Cohen spent years writing the play, and many more fixing it after he realized from an early reading that he’d “gotten it all wrong.” The play is not about whether the Nazis made soap, says Cohen. It’s about “how a survivor survives surviving.”
More important, perhaps, is the question about “the right to write history,” says Cohen, noting the conflict in the piece among survivors, historians and those who deny the Holocaust.
“It really moves me to do something that represents reality,” says Johanna Day, who plays Holocaust denier Brenda Goodsen. “I knew a little bit about the Holocaust, not as much as I should have,” she says. Most recently on Broadway in “Sweat,” Day acknowledges that her character, who initially seems charming and charismatic, presents some rough moments, suggesting, among other things, that far fewer than 6 million Jews died and that the Jews were at fault for what happened.
Cohen recognizes that Brenda’s speech is deeply troubling. In fact, he recalls that at the play’s first reading, “it was all I could do to not stand up and stop it.” But following the performance, Cohen asked whether the character belonged in the play. “You have to keep her,” the audience told Cohen. “People need to know.”