New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Ethnic Theater - Jewish

"The People in the Picture"
Studio 54, Manhattan

Donna Murphy a Bubbe? We’re talking about her leading role in “The People in the Picture,” a show which has just opened on Broadway. It is the tale of an elderly Jewish woman, living in New   York, who lovingly cares for her granddaughter, while her daughter serves as breadwinner.

We could not help reflecting on whether a non-Jew can play a Jewish character, of whether an actress of presumably Irish-American background can succeed. Granted that Murphy is an award-winning actress, known for her past stellar performances—an actress whom, judging by her track record, can do anything. But a Bubbe?

But indeed she prevails once again. And we quickly come to terms with our doubts. (Never mind that her Yiddish accent doesn’t quite make it!) But isn’t this what acting is all about? The best of performers inhabit the roles they play, becoming the very essence of their characters, however far removed from their own origins. Certainly Jewish actors should not be confined to Jewish roles---nor should any other actor be kept within the confines of its own ethnic group.

This tale of mothers and daughters moves back and forth in time, as does Murphy herself. Conflict is never far from the surface, as mothers—and Bubbes—must do what they must to survive. Bubbe was once Raisel, the star of a Yiddish theater troupe in Warsaw (in the ‘30s). Murphy, nothing short of incredible, quickly shedding her years, her halting walk, her crippled back, slips back in time to become the joyous young performer. Not surprisingly, life becomes exceedingly difficult for this Jewish troupe, as the anti-Semitism becomes more and more virulent. Ultimately, under German occupation, few manage to escape death. But, after the war, Raisel and her young daughter come to the States, to begin a life difficult in other ways.

The play is skillfully staged, with the past living in Bubbe’s mind, yet\ reaching out to the audience. It is all spelled out musically, with pleasing, though not memorable tunes, and enhanced by Murphy’s rich voice and skill in vocalization. It is altogether a fine ensemble of performers, under Leonard Foglia’s able direction. Each one in the large cast creates strong, individual cameo portraits. In particular, Rachel Resheff, as the little granddaughter, gives a fresh, delightful performance—and the scenes between her and Murphy are loving and highly believable.

The story itself, unfortunately, lacking an arc, does not build toward a climax. This is a problem encountered with backward-looking tales, with memoirs. The element of surprise, with an intense build-up, is missing. Yet, for those of us who lay claim to a common ancestry, “The People in the Picture” is a satisfying show. Staged as a giant photo album, it parallels our own photo albums complete with our own people in the picture.

--Irene Backalenick
May 5, 2011

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