Ethnic Theater - Jewish
"The House in Town"
Mitzi Newhouse at Lincoln Center
Richard Greenberg is a prolific and popular writer, with numerous Broadway and other awards to his credit. Not all of his plays work well, but the current “The House in Town” at Lincoln Center is an intriguing, provocative character study. It is Greenberg at his analytic best.
Greenberg’s hero—or anti-hero, if you will—is a highly successful Jewish businessman. The time and place is Manhattan in the 1920s, a time when casual, accepted anti-Semitism, even in the most civilized circles, is the prevailing practice. Sam Hammer’s success, in this hostile atmosphere, certainly comes at a price. To get where he is, heading a department store and dwelling on “Millionaire’s Row” on 23rd Street, he has had to develop survival skills. His slyness, caution, and wariness are not the most admirable of traits, but certainly traits which have contributed to his success.
While Sam is basic to the story, it is Sam’s wife on whom Greenberg focuses. Amy Hammer, when the play opens, is a child-like wife given to fanciful ideas and poetic statements. Pampered, dependent, and out of touch with the real world, her chief concerns are with dresses, decor and local gossip. But life’s truths gradually dawn on her, as, for example, when she learns how her anti-Semitic parents permitted her to marry Sam. “You bought me!” she flings at Sam. With these words and further truths, we watch her grow into a woman and ultimately take charge of her own life. The parallels to Ibsen’s Nora of “A Doll’s House” are all there, but with a Greenberg twist.
This Lincoln Center production is beautifully staged and directed, featuring an impeccable cast. John Lee Beatty’s rich set of mellow browns and deep reds gives every impression of the interior of a 1920s millionaire’s mansion. It is a perpendicular set, with high ceilings, elegant chandeliers and stairways leading to a vast array of unknown upstairs rooms. The set provides a striking and overwhelming contrast to the inadequate Amy, presumably the mistress of the home.
And now we come to that mistress. Jessica Hecht is in complete command of the role as Amy, making it a subtle, authoritative and ultimately heart-breaking performance. But the entire cast—Mark Harelik, Becky Ann Baker, Dan Bittner, and Armand Schultz—are letter-perfect, guided by the sure hand of director Doug Hughes.
(An interesting side note about Mark Harelik, who is both actor and a playwright: As a playwright, he wrote a play--and later musical--“The Immigrant,” about his own grandfather. The elder Harelik came to this country as a Jewish immigrant, rising from a peddler wandering the Texas countryside to become founder/owner of a large department store. How appropriate that Mark Harelik should play this role!)
All told, this is a thoughtful, challenging piece, which is given the production it deserves.
-- Irene Backalenick
July 20, 2006