New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Ethnic Theater - Jewish

"Fyvush Finkel Live!"
The National Yiddish Theatre
The Baruch Performing Arts Center

It’s only right that Fyvush Finkel be paid tribute. The 88-year-old actor has had a long, venerable history on stage and screen, both Yiddish and mainstream theater. And appropriate, too, that his current show is staged at The National Yiddish Theatre—Folksbiene—a venerable institution in its own right.

The show is named “Fyvush Finkel Live!” a feisty statement to prove that Finkel is still ready to stand up and do his thing. But it’s no longer easy for this performer. He no longer strides ahead (the cane is more than a prop), or belts out a tune (despite a few strong notes), or executes a lively dance step.

Which leads us to wonder, once more, why actors never know when to quit. We have seen this phenomenon frequently--aging actors, who can no longer remember lines or move easily, are on stage all the same. Apparently it’s hard to relinquish one’s place in the sun, one’s very identity.

(Our most memorable recollection is that of the renowned Yiddish actor Pesach Burstein (father of actor Mike Burstyn). Some years ago, when given a “Goldie” award (the Jewish equivalent of the Tony award), he rose to the stage and the occasion—offering up an interminable, rambling acceptance speech. Though awkward, it was fortunate that he was allowed to deliver this soliloquy, since he died a few months later.)

Hence we now have Fyvush Finkel—alive and on stage. And though Finkel has formidable back-up (his own sons included), this is not a good show—in fact, not a show at all. Had some one been on hand to write the book, this mish-mash, with its scattered thoughts and pieces, might have been integrated into a worthy show.

Not that there is not considerable talent on hand: Both sons (Elliot, the concert pianist, and Ian, the xylophone virtuoso) are renowned musicians. Their duets, in the course of the evening, are nothing short of marvelous. They, too, are backed by a solid musical combo. And two competent actors—June Gable and Merwin Goldsmith—offer songs, skits, and dances which do much to take the burden off Fyvush Finkel’s shoulders. In fact, Goldsmith’s moving song, “Reuben the Knish Man,” proves to be one highlight of the evening.

Finkel does have his fine professional moment—when he delivers the Shylock speech from “The Merchant of Venice” in Yiddish. The fact is that Finkel has always been a first-rate actor, and, in that moment, he meets the challenge. But if the show itself is meant to be a Finkel retrospective, one looks for tales of his long, continuing cross-over career, from Yiddish to mainstream stage and screen. One expects vivid anecdotes, really good jokes, and, above all, an orderly sequence of events—all sadly missing.

There is, however, affability and good will, both on stage and off. The Finkel sons reveal filial devotion, love and support—and the audience itself is warmly receptive. But doesn’t that responsive audience deserve a clearer, more entertaining, and deeper rendition of the Fyvush Finkel story? Where is the substance, the juice, to this show?

--Irene Backalenick
Oct. 19, 2010

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