Ethnic Theater - Jewish
"The Last Word…"
St. Clement's Theatre, Manhattan
Here is Oren Safdie’s play about two Jews who share one creative urge, but are worlds apart. This two-character comedy may indeed not be the last word, but one more word in the ongoing battle between youth and age, between the older and younger generations. Henry is an old Viennese Jew who escaped the Nazis and came to the States, to become a successful advertising executive. Now retired, he wants to fulfill his dream as a playwright. Len is a young NYU playwriting student who needs work and is being interviewed as Henry’s possible assistant. Not surprisingly, their ideas of theater—and the world around them—differ sharply.
But Len hardly has a chance to express his views. Henry is an irascible egomaniac and a non-stop talker—and legally blind to boot. Nothing is right in today’s theater—or the world itself, for that matter. Scholarship has disappeared, language has deteriorated, plots are non-existent, and so on. The truth is that Henry, not theater and its plays, that is out of synch.
Daniel Travanti (award-winning television star) acts up a storm as the elderly Jew. Who said an Italian-American couldn’t play a Jew? It’s called acting. Every gesture, every Viennese inflection, is right on target. I would say that Travanti plays it over the top, that it is an exaggerated performance, except that I actually have a friend/neighbor who is an exact replicate. Travanti is in fact superb in the role. And Adam Green, as his foil, gives a fine, believable supporting performance.
But difficulties lie within the play itself. Though only eighty minutes long, without intermission, the play drags, and tends to be repetitious. It is only toward the end, when Henry gives a little monologue about lost opportunities, that one’s interest picks up. The play would benefit from sharper confrontations, more open challenges, and funnier exchanges. On the plus side, are the insights into a writer’s struggle to get his plays mounted. But at the close, when Len is, predictably, won over to the curmudgeon, the reasons for this turnabout are inadequate. One cannot help but compare “The Last Word…” to a parallel drama, Donald Margulies’ “Collective Stories,” in which an older writer and her assistant clash. But Margulies’ piece of some years ago encompasses two thoughtful in-depth character studies and strong motivations for his characters.
But watching Travanti go through his paces, turning Henry into a tour de force, is well worth the price of admission. “The Last Word…” is coming to the end of its off-Broadway run, but watch for Travanti and his play to surface elsewhere in this country.
-- Irene Backalenick
Feb. 22, 2007