New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Ethnic Theater - Jewish

"The Assistant"
Turtle Shell Productions, Manhattan

What makes the off-Broadway play, “The Assistant,” (at Turtle Shell Productions through early May) so endearing, so personal, so powerful? Why does it grip your heart, never letting go throughout its 100 minutes of angst?

Perhaps because this staged version is based on a novel by master storyteller and Pulitzer Prize winner Bernard Malamud. While Malamud (1914—1986) was a man of his times, he was also a Jew. And, living in the 20th century, his works spelled out the particular moral dilemmas and emotional crises which such a man faced.

In “The Assistant,” his second novel, Malamud creates characters that are neither all good nor all bad, but suffer the confusions and conflicts of daily life. His characters are all too human, all too fallible. At the same time, master craftsman that he is, Malamud weaves a rich, complex tale that involves several tricky interrelationships.

Martin Zuckerman has adapted the piece with a sure hand, and turns it over to the equally capable director Elfin Vogel—who moves the story through a series of sharp, cinematic scenes. They are blessed with a generally fine cast and the intimate setting of Turtle Shell’s small off-Broadway theater.

“The Assistant” deals with the trials of Morris Bober, an elderly Brooklyn deli owner and Frank, a drifter whom he hires. Frank, of Italian descent, has known nothing but a life in the orphanage and a marginal life on the outside. It is Morris’s gentle humanity and views on Judaism which changes Frank’s outlook. Added to the complications are Bober’s nubile daughter Helen and his grimly disapproving wife Ida. There are others, too, who feed into the plot—Frank’s crony Ward, who is a small-time hood, and Morris’s successful colleague Julius.

Bern Cohen as Morris Bober brings a special richness to the role and sets the tone, while Drew Valins, as the young eager Frank, gives an equally strong performance. And support is forthcoming from Rachel Claire, Alex Adams, Deidre Lynn, Susan Bob, and and Stewart Steinberg.

If there is any criticism, it is for the dialogue shared by Bern Cohen and Susan Bob (as Morris and his wife Idea). Supposedly they are speaking Yiddish—or English strongly influenced by their Yiddish background. But not for a moment does this phrasing feel like authentic Yiddish—or English influenced by Yiddish. Is it that Susan Bob is uncomfortable with her lines, or that the dialogue itself (as written by Zuckerman) does not ring true? Hard to say.

But this is a minor quibble. Mostly, the story itself has the ring of truth, thanks to the director’s sure hand, Bern Cohen’s strong portrayal, and the genius of Malamud.

-- Irene Backalenick
May 3, 2009

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