New York City Theater
Laura Pels Theater
“The Old Friends”
Add to your list of families you would not like to spend Thanksgiving with: the relatives in Horton Foote’s “The Old Friends” and Joshua Harmon’s “Bad Jews.” Yet, though acerbic and wounded, bringing up ancient scars and hurts, they make for compelling company. Both titles may be ironic, but they convey the fraying ties that barely, though significantly, bind.
“Bad Jews” is set in an Upper West Side pied-a-terre where a dynamo named Diana Feygenbaum (she’d rather be known as the more ethnic Daphna) and her cousin, Jonah, have come to honor their grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, who died that day. Joining them are Jonah’s brother, Liam, and his non-Jewish girlfriend, Melody.
The blood that is thicker than water is generously spilled during the evening. Daphna and Liam fight over possession of the “chai” (“life”) medal that their Poppy protected under his tongue all the while he was in a Nazi concentration camp. Daphna feels it should belong to her, as a super-Jew protecting the long line of religious adherents. (“If we stop,” she says, “it will all be gone.”)
Liam, she feels, is too assimilated, too indifferent to their people’s centuries of suffering. In addition to other non-observant sins, he wants to gift Melody with the chai.
Daphna’s vitriol is both frightening and hilarious. Insults are hurled like matzo balls between the cousins, with Jonah a reluctant bystander and Melody a would-be peacemaker. Although the action is comic – there’s a funny riff on the conflict between Jewish digestive tracts and Japanese food -- the outline is tragic, a vessel of tears and remembrances.
Director Daniel Aukin superbly balances surface fury with underlying sadness. This is, after all, the day a beloved man died. Philip Ettinger’s self-effacing Jonah, Michael Zegen’s dyspeptic Liam and Molly Ranson’s pacifying Melody come up against Tracee Chimo’s virago of a Daphna. Whether trying to control her mop of hair, trudging around the apartment or confronting everyone with the fury of her beliefs, Chimo, who’s already won awards for this role, is unforgettable.
The acting is equally fine in “The Old Friends,” an early Foote play being given a belated premiere. It’s directed by Michael Wilson with an understanding of the author’s humane feelings for people desperately holding onto their lives in the face of greed and death. Despite their outward, drawling, good Southern manners, these are desperate people.
Chief perpetrator is rich bitch Gertrude, a harridan who, when she loses control, trashes anyone and anything in her line of vision. “Sometimes I look around this darkened room,” she says, “and, to me, it seems I’m in my coffin.” (Echoes of Tennessee Williams.)
Right now, Gertrude, a widow, has her eye on her deceased husband’s brother Howard who, in turn, loves Sybil Borden, whose own husband, Hugo, has just died. Meanwhile, Hugo’s sister, the grasping Julia, is having an affair with a young man under the eyes of her knowing husband, Albert. Lording over these misfits is Mamie Borden, the family matriarch who takes a perverse pleasure in all the machinations.
That’s a lot to take in and the first act takes its time sorting out the relationships. But the explosions in the more melodramatic second act reveal bitterness, rejection and quiet desperation.
The dramaturgy may be more turgid than disciplined, yet the acting is exemplary: Betty Buckley as the monstrous Gertrude, Veanne Cox as the scheming Julia, Adam LeFevre as the murderous Albert, the unmatchable Lois Smith as Mamie, Hallie Foote (Horton’s daughter) in a overwhelmingly sly performance as Sybil and Cotter Smith’s poignant Howard, everyone’s prize.
“I tried to put my life together and it keeps being torn apart,” says one character in “The Old Friends.” That might stand as epitaph for these works about people torn uneasily from their roots.
--David A. Rosenberg
Oct. 12, 2013