Ethnic Theater - Jewish
"Last Jew in Europe"
Triad Theatre, Manhattan
Tuvia Tenenbom’s play “Last Jew in Europe,” which has been traveling around Europe for some time, now arrives on these shores. According to its billing, this show is “a tragicomedy about the resurgence of anti-Semitism in today’s Europe.
So much for promotional material. Actually it is hard to pinpoint this piece, either in genre or theme. It is the latest work of Tenenbom (who is writer, co-director, and founder/artistic director of The Jewish Theater of New York)—and a former Orthodox rabbi. Is “Last Jew in Europe” an absurdist comedy, a docudrama, a serious political statement, a total fiasco? Shall we take it seriously? Shall we succumb to its dubious charms? Shall we condemn it out of hand?
The fact is that once you are in Tuvia-land, you must abandon preconceptions. You must be prepared for forays into bad taste and outrageous behavior. You must be prepared for the cows, sacred or otherwise, to be knocked down. Crazy things happen, and everything is up for grabs, everyone is open to insult—Jews and anti-Semites, Catholics and Mormons, Poles and Americans, corpses and cows, faith and love, life and afterlife.
Here’s the story: John Jay Smith arrives in Lodz, Poland, to fulfill a mission, as every Mormon must. He will search out Jews, living or dead, and baptize them, so they can gain salvation. Of course the dead Jews have no choice, but no matter. In the process, he falls in love with a Polish girl, Maria. She is about to marry Jozef, but fears that her fiance may actually be Jewish. Horrors! Thus, among other conflicts, a love triangle is set up.
It turns out that every one is hiding dark secrets, as the twists of the story unfold. Cases of mistaken identities, surprise relationships, and dropping of pants abound. Love is lost and found and lost again. It is noteworthy that Tenenbom found his material in the real world, which gave him grist for the mill. According to Tenenbom, anti-Semitic graffiti is certainly to be found on today’s walls in Lodz, Mormons do believe that they should baptize Jews, and some Jews in Poland do indeed hide their identity.
Tenenbom has the mixed blessing of a cast recruited from both Europe and the States, thus putting a strain on English pronunciation. But Daniel Shafer shines as the goofy, naïve Mormon, Csaba S. Lucas is appealing as the overwrought Jew, and the director’s slides broaden the scope of the piece. But frankly, we do not think this piece—or production--measures up to the best of Tenenbom’s work, however worthy the cause.
Yet The Jewish Theater of New York soldiers on. It is interesting that the company has managed to endure since the mid-90s, outlasting all other English-speaking Jewish theaters in New York. JTNY survived by becoming a traveling troupe, moving its shows overseas part-time and returning to New York sporadically. Though Tenenbom and the JTNY manage to raise hackles wherever they go, European audiences have been much kinder to the shows. Or so Tenenbom claims. But now, “Last Jew” is definitely getting an enthusiastic response on West 72nd Street.
--- Irene Backalenick
Mar. 12, 2007