Ethnic Theater - Jewish
"Harry & Eddie—The Birth of Israel"
St. Luke's Theatre, Manhattan
‘Harry & Eddie—The Birth of Israel.” The title gives promise of an intriguing story covering a critical moment in history. The characters to which playwright Mark Weston refers are Harry Truman and his one-time business partner Eddie Jacobson. The two were close friends, according to the play, and co-owners of a men’s clothing store. Moreover, the play indicates, Jacobson strongly influenced President Truman’s decision to recognize Israel.
But intriguing stories do not necessarily translate into strong plays—or any kind of play, for that matter. And Weston’s concoction, which is now running off-Broadway at St. Luke’s Theatre, has yet to reach the level of drama. What we have is a monologue, an Eddie Jacobson monologue, delivered from a podium. No, make that a lecture. Though occasionally other characters share brief encounters with Eddie, and there are rudiments of a dramatic exchange, one could gain as much by reading a magazine article.
Weston has his background facts correct. Eddie’s father, a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania, moves from the lower East Side to Kansas City, Missouri, a city which he feels offers greater opportunities. He soon becomes a milkman, and his son, growing up in Missouri, (and noted for his “silver tongue”) eventually becomes a salesman. Joining the army in 1917, Eddie bonds with Harry Truman, who is his captain. After the war, they launch a business, which thrives for several years. When hard times take over, Eddie becomes a road salesman and Harry goes into politics.
Yet the two remain close friends, according to “Harry & Eddie.” And in Eddie’s frequent White House visits, he pleads the cause of the Jewish people. Israel is pushing for statehood and recognition by the United Nations, and official American support could make the difference. Truman, who has an anti-Semitic wife, according to the records (and is himself no lover of the Jewish people) resists the pleas of “pushy Jews” (Rabbi Hillel Abba Silver among them). But ultimately, with Jacobson’s persistent urging, Truman sees Chaim Weitzmann and goes on to recognize Israel as a state.
Eddie is the only fleshed-out character, and a rather endearing character at that (as performed ably by Rick Grossman). He is unpolished, unsophisticated, but decent, good-hearted, and devoted to the Jewish cause. Whether he actually played the key role that “Harry & Eddie” attributes to him is controversial. Margaret Truman’s biography noted that such claims were “absurd,” but Weston says that the friendship was well documented by historians.
True facts or not, the question is: how well does this story translate to the stage? Though Eddie comes through clearly, his monologue is limited, flat, and cliché-ridden. Granted that the real Eddie Jacobson may indeed have spoken and thought in that way. But more serious problems lie with other characters. Harry Truman is a stick figure, as is Eddie’s wife Bluma, and their exchanges with Eddie carry no impact. It is difficult to care what happens to any of these three, despite the story’s intriguing dramatic possibilities.
Back to the drawing board for “Harry & Eddie,” we would hope. There is too much story potential to let this piece languish on the vine. We look to a revitalized piece, with stronger characterizations and more intensive, believable exchanges. It is a story which deserves no less.
Sept. 12, 2011