New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Ethnic Theater - Jewish

"27 Rue de Fleurus"
Urban Stages, Manhattan

Is it possible that Gertrude Stein had suggested Adolph Hitler be given a Nobel Peace Prize? Apparently, in 1938, Stein did just that, according to Gustav Hendrikksen, a Swedish professor and former member of the Nobel Committee. Stein felt that by “removing all the elements of contest and of struggle from Germany,” Hitler would be ending strife in that country.

Such recent revelations come as a shock, and expose Stein’s conflicted attitudes toward her own Jewishness. The “elements” to be removed were, foremost, her fellow Jews. This acclaimed literary icon, who flourished in Paris during the pre-and post-World War I years, was herself a Jew, having been born into a wealthy German-Jewish family. Was Stein, raised comfortably in the United States, denying her own background, or simply reaching for shock effect? Her own avant garde prose constantly strove to turn conventional wisdoms upsidedown. Was this posture more of the same? In any event, her views must have paid off, for she was allowed to remain in Paris all through the years of Nazi occupation.

Unfortunately, the current off-Broadway mini-musical about Stein and her lover Alice B. Toklas reveals none of this. (It is Urban Stages’ offering of “27 Rue de Fleurus”—named for the couple’s street address.) This light-weight bittersweet piece offers an apolitical Gertrude, concerned only with her own needs. Friends appear, and discussions focus on gossip and good food.

The story is seen from the Toklas point of view. It is Alice looking down from Heaven, or wherever she might be, sharing her recollections. It was the tumultuous Parisian years when Stein reigned supreme, with Alice kneeling adoringly at Stein’s feet—when she was not cooking, cleaning, serving guests or typing manuscripts. Exploitation? Yes. She was willing to play that role in their lop-sided relationship.

It was an era of great creative output. Stein, in the very heart of it all, counted among her confreres the writers and artists who would define our cultural climate for generations to come--Pablo Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, among them.

Barbara Rosenblat, who plays Gertrude Stein, is mesmerizing—and no wonder, for she has a juicy role into which to sink her teeth. Gertrude, by all accounts, was self-centered, demanding, stimulating—and committed to the idea of her own greatness. With her monstrous ego, she trampled upon Alice, an arrangement which seemed to suit them both. Cheryl Stern, who plays the wistful Alice, holds her own as the tale unfolds, providing a nice contrast to Rosenblat’s Gertrude. Less satisfying, and decidedly uneven, are the three remaining cast members (Emily Zacharias, Sarah Chalfy, and Susan Haefner) who play an assortment of Stein colleagues. Performances are weakest when they are called upon to be male characters, turning the show into an amateurish effort. The one exception is Haefner’s subtly-nuanced portrayal of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

But all are in good voice, and do justice to the fifteen musical numbers, from the rousing “Salon” to the softer love songs which depict the Stein-Toklas love affair. Director Francis Hill (Urban Stages’ Artistic Director) keeps the 90-minute non-stop show going at a lively clip. Admirable, too, is the slide show which serves as backdrop—a collage of paintings which defined the era.

But, alas, it is the mise en scene itself which gets short shrift. How much more valuable the piece could have been, with in-depth characterizations and colorful details of the era! And, most importantly, how valuable the piece could have been had the writers explored Gertrude in all her unsavory aspects!

-- Irene Backalenick
Mar. 12, 2008

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