Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Esther's Moustache: Not Your Parents'
Also see Bob's review of A Wind in the Willows Christmas
Following a bit of mood setting, frenetic Klezmer music, the lights come up on Maddie Steinberg's disheveled one bedroom Venice, California, beach cottage. Maddie is a graphic artist who draws a lauded comic strip for the popular California weekly paper which goes by the name of Raunch Magazine. In place of a portion of the back wall of Maddie's work space is a life-sized comic strip panel within which we see digitally projected images of her graphic art as she creates it. The panel is often occupied in the flesh by a vapid blonde, Super Heroine Goddess of Maddie's strip who is referred to as Lilith. In ancient Jewish mythology, Lilith is a female demon who was created at the same time as Eve and was his first wife until she transgressed with an archangel ... . Enough, most Jews don't know this anymore anyway.
As Maddie struggles unsuccessfully to create a graphic novel, Gerd, a handsome, muscled young man on rollerblades with a heavy "Cherman" accent arrives at Maddie's door. Gerd is the new messenger for Rauch, and he is there to pick up Maddie's weekly comic strip. Gerd is an avid fan of Maddie's work and the sexually promiscuous "alter ego" whom she is drawing. Gerd comes on to Maddie, who is very susceptible to his advances. Maddie becomes alarmed by her perception that she had begun to grow a very noticeable and ugly moustache.
Mitten'd'rinen (right in the middle of everything), Maddie's overbearing Grandmother Esther from New York drops by with luggage and warm potato latkes in hand. Esther has also brought her sthet'l (village in middle and eastern Europe where Jews were forced to live in isolation from the majority population whom they came to fear and distrust) mentality with her. She looks at Maddie and decides that Maddie is growing a moustache just as she had when she was Maddie's age. (Maddie appears to be in her middle thirties or so here.)
Maddie clearly is trying to to cast off Esther as well as her remaining, seriously diminished family, along with their values, history, religious heritage, and the painful baggage of being a member of a people wearied and weighed down from having been oppressed for as long as anyone can remember. On the other hand, Esther, like most but certainly not all, American Jews born prior to the 1950s, is grateful to be an American and comfortable with and proud of her culture, heritage and religion. Now she has come to Venice, no matter how she has come, in order to save Maddie from losing her very essence.
I imagine author-director Laurel Ollstein shaking her head at how very wrong that last paragraph is. Not as to any inaccuracy in my description of the drift of her play or the attitudes of America's Jews, but because of its overly earnest tone. Esther's Moustache is a flat out, often hilarious comedy. I do not want to give too much away, but, for most of its length, Esther's Moustache is played in the style of a wildly exuberant absurdist and/or screwball comedy. It seems likely that Ollstein has correctly concluded that grim plays depicting tragic history and a helpless people are more likely to drive ever smaller new generations of American Jews further and further away from their cultural and religious roots.
Ultimately, Esther's Moustache is not an absurdist play. However, it plays like one for most of its length. While this will likely make the play less readily accessible to some older, culturally conservative members of its audience, the fresh creativity that Ollstein has brought to her subject matches the sensibility of younger generations who have been raised on the raunchy, freewheeling and anarchic humor of modern stand-up comedy, sketch comedy and youth oriented movies. It seems clear that she is on the younger generation's side of this divide. It also seems clear that she has gotten there without having to wear "someone else's clothes" (I've placed that last phrase in quotes, as it is in my head because I've been re-listening to Jason Robert Brown's CD of that nametaken from the title of one of its songsand because, from his particular point of view, Brown often deals with not dissimilar issues). By the second act, thanks to the hand in glove artistry of Ollstein's incisively witty script and her sly, inventive direction, audiences of all ages should happily be entirely on board for her delightful, meaningful ride. I would also add in today's American culture, the issues raised by Ollstein's play are pertinent in any number of American subcultures.
Scenic Designer Jessica Parks continues her long string of amazing design work here. It is a complex, moving set which contains its own surprises. Brilliantly absurd, it amplifies the content of the play. Jill Nagle's lighting design adds to the crucial off-centeredness of the set design.
Jim Shankman's performance as Aunt Esther is superb. His casting is theatrically absurd in the sense that he is completely and obviously male, making no effort to hide it. Simultaneously, Shenkman without strain or apparent effort, smoothly conveys the tranquility and strength of the immigrant mother who knew what her role was, valued it and calmly fulfilled it. Shenkman manages to be as real as Esther as Irene Dunne was as a Norwegian immigrant mother in the 1948 film version of the John Van Druten play, I Remember Mama.
Catherine LeFrere lightly conveys the dissatisfaction, self-loathing and psychosis of the blocked and bitter Maddie without losing our sympathy. The key seems to be the delight she provides in exploring the comic side of Maddie which Ollstein has provided for her. Burt Grinstead brings off the largely comic role of Gerd. His Gerd is continually manipulated into changing personas by Maddie, requiring Grinstead to repeatedly change his behavior on a dime. Uma Incrocci works admirably hard, but cannot overcome the fuzzy conception of Lilith. Lilith seems to be an indigestible amalgam of the suppressed, sexually aggressive side of Maddie in the form of Goddess, her graphic novel heroine and a vapid dumb blonde Shicksa (literally, a non-Jewish female, but a term which is this context expresses derision). Furthermore, in either guise, Incrocci has been altogether miscast.
Esther's Moustache is a very funny, very serious play on an eternal theme made fresh by Laurel Ollstein's intelligent writing, skillful construction, rich imagination and modern sensibility.
(Congratulations to NJR on being one of the ten theatres throughout the entire country to be awarded the 2012 American Theatre Wing National Theatre Grant.)
Esther's Moustache continues performances (Evenings: Thursday, Friday & Saturday at 8 pm/ Matinees: Saturday 3 pm; Sunday 2 pm) through January 13, 2013, at the New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, New Jersey 07740; box office: 732-229-3166; online: www.njrep.org.
Esther's Moustache by Laurel Ollstein; directed by Laurel Ollstein