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Ethnic Theater - Jewish

Jewish Theater in New York — A Backward Glance, A Forward Look (a round-up piece)

It is easier to reflect upon the past than to speculate about the future. The past is on record, there to be evaluated. Of the future, we can only surmise and hope for the best.

Yet this past season’s Jewish shows in New York have indicated two clear trends, if we are to judge by the record. More Israeli shows have surfaced, suggesting a growing influence from that source. And, in sharp contrast, the Holocaust play has exerted a waning influence.

Though the Jewish influence may have changed its sources, it continues to impact on the New York scene.  How, specifically, did that manifest itself this past season? What was memorable, what was forgettable, what was somewhere in between? Which plays and musicals will go on to future lives--or be sent to the shredder? (And here, it must be noted, we offer only one opinion, possibly a minority opinion. Those which should be sent to the shredder will not necessarily suffer that dire fate, nor will the valuable plays, as we see them, necessarily have a future life.)

The New York “Jewish” shows of the 2007-2008 season fall into several categories, as we struggle with the inevitable question of what is a “Jewish show.”  To that end, we rely upon two major categories—one, those shows which deal with Jewish themes or characters, and, two, those shows which are not necessarily Jewish, but have been created by Jews.

Some pieces clearly fell into both groups—specifically the Israeli shows. Considering the offerings which arrived on these shores this past year, it bodes well for the future of theater—in both Israel and this country. A remarkable play by Israeli playwright Ilan Hatsor was called “Masked” and dealt with three Palestinian brothers. It was a soul-searching piece that gave a human face to characters too often depicted as stereotypes, a show which went on to receive considerable recognition. Then a gifted Israeli husband/wife team Geula and Victor Attar brought “Seven Days” to LaMama’s, a sharp surreal piece about a modern dysfunctional family. And Israeli actress Iris Bahr gave a solo performance which turned suicide bombings in Tel Aviv into high drama. (More Israeli offerings, which we unfortunately missed because of heavy schedules, were also on tap.)

Moving on to other solo performances by and about Jews, comedian Jackie Mason’s return (absolutely his final performance, he insisted) proved to be hilarious. Mason, it seems, has mellowed with the years, and the barbs were more affectionate than stinging. Less satisfying was Rena Strober‘s one-woman solo, called “Spaghetti and Matzo Balls,” which strained to make an ecumenical connection. The misspelling of matzoh was the least of its problems. “Spaghetti” was among a number of other amateurish off-Broadway efforts to cash in on a Jewish theme, better left unnoted.

The Holocaust theme, so prevalent in past offerings, provided only two examples: a mediocre piece called “On the Border” and a superb drama called “Fabrik.” With puppets, masks, music, and inventiveness, “Fabrik” created a vanished world. It was the story of a Polish Jew who emigrated to Norway and fought the Nazis in his own style. “On the Border,” on the other hand, used surrealism to depict another Jew’s escape from the Nazis, but the result was amateurish.

Yiddish theater continued to thrive under the careful nurturing of the National Yiddish Theatre—Folksbiene. The venerable company celebrated its 93rd consecutive season this past year with numerous events. Folksbiene shows and concerts, some aimed at young audiences, surfaced in the various boroughs. But, at Folksbiene’s own Manhattan theater, highlight of the year was the delightful comedy “Di Ksube” (“The Marriage Contract”).

Two plays dealt with two famous women in the arts. Both were Jewish but each handled her Jewish roots in different style. The Gertrude Stein piece (27 rue de fleurus) revealed Stein’s shocking attraction to Hitler, and the Louise Nevelson drama depicted her accepting but disinterested attitude toward her background. As theater, both pieces faltered, but the subject matter each time was provocative.

Only one play this season explored Jewish history, seriously and brilliantly. “New Jerusalem” depicted the struggle of Spinoza and his ultimate excommunication from the Amsterdam community and synagogue. Excellent direction, fine performances and intriguing, though flawed, writing mark this piece, and hail the appearance of a promising young actor—Jeremy Strong—as Spinoza.

But Jewish theater as defined by its writers and composers is represented in far greater numbers. For starters, two English-Jewish playwrights made their Broadway mark with two excellent dramas. Harold Pinter’s “Homecoming” and Tom Stoppard’s “Rock ‘n Roll” both enjoyed excellent, award-winning productions.

Two earlier playwrights—both Jewish-Americans—were also represented in solid productions. Sylvia Regan’s “Morning Star” was a moving reminder of the immigrant experience, and Elmer Rice’s “The Adding Machine” was turned into a captivating, offbeat musical. And among today’s Jewish-American playwrights, Norman Beim continues to be highly productive, with his play “Dreams” currently running off-Broadway.

Finally, four of the big Broadway musicals (two from its golden era) were once again offered in revivals: “South Pacific,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Gypsy,” and “Young Frankenstein.” These four took the bulk of the Tony and other critics’ nominations and awards this season. The Jewish contribution to  all five shows is overwhelming. Mel Brooks, Stephen Sondheim, James Lapine, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne were all part of the mix.

What can we predict for the upcoming season? We do know that, on Broadway, Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” is planned for the fall, as is Peter Shaffer’s “Equus,” Rodgers and Hart’s “Pal Joey,” and David Mamet’s dark comedy “Speed-the-Plow.” Richard Greenberg’s “The American Plan” will open in January, and “West Side Story” (Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim) is slated for next spring. Once more relying on revivals, Broadway will be kept afloat courtesy of those Jewish writers and composers.

It is impossible to predict what will surface in the way of new plays in the off-Broadway world. Anything can happen. We can only hope that new, young (or not-so-young) Jewish talents will emerge. With such trailblazers and examples as  Miller, Mamet, Rodgers, Hammerstein, Bernstein, Sondheim, that is very likely. It bodes well for the future.

-- Irene Backalenick
June 15, 2008

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