Jacob and Jack
Also see Richard's review of Star Trek: Live!
Yes, I nodded to myself, I understand: there will be madness and confusion, shame, humiliation, ruined marriages and ruined lives, and an audience roaring with laughter all the way. Going by the excellent cast and director, this was never in doubt. But where are the other key elements of farce? Where is the dead body, and where is the fortune, and where are the mistaken identities?
That's the best part: all those other key ingredients are elevated into pure abstraction by playwright James Sherman. I'm not sure how you'd go about the remainder, in elevating all those slamming doors into abstraction as well, but the extremely reliable director Edward Coffield manages the comedy of people brashly, horrifically coming face to face every minute or two, with the greatest aplomb.
The dead body, I will tell you right now, may be Yiddish Theatre itself, which has seemingly been lingering in suspended animation since at least 1935, as its immigrant audience passed on, and its children aspired to the mainstream. This demise is also a deliciously withering self-observation for the New Jewish Theatre, which otherwise shows absolutely no signs of flagging health.
The mistaken identities are manifold and diverse: each actor and actress plays a modern theater person, and some totally different person from the 1930s. The outstanding Bobby Miller is a seemingly marginal performer in the present day, but also a leading man in the midst of the Great Depression. And he, and all the other players, get mixed up in wonderfully unpredictable ways from the past and present and, sometimes, both thrown eerily together at once. The three principle actors wear 1930s costumes nearly all the time, adding to the confusion, and you can nearly go cross-eyed trying to guess which character's lines will come out of which actor's mouth once they've made their entrance again, into some comically anguished moment or other. Eventually, it all fits together and makes perfect sense. But every time, that gasping fraction of a second of "not knowing" until one character or another speaks up adds a layer of almost unbearable suspense. It's a fantastic combination of the farcical and the surreal.
And the farcical fortune, for an actor in the Depression, is getting the hell out of Yiddish Theatre and into Hollywood by hook or by crook. Mr. Miller, as the modern-day actor, seems resigned to acting in TV commercials, but his wife (the always great Kari Ely) tries to convince him (in the 1930s scenes) to throw it all away and make it in the movies. It gets more and more complicated, but suffice it to say that things end up strangely, realistically happy at the end, in spite of everyone's mad ambitions and even madder tempers and terrors.
The much-admired Terry Meddows plays the modern actor's manager, and the stage manager of the old Blackstone Theatre in Chicago in the parallel 1930's scenes. The present-day scenes are in the same three little rooms in the re-named Merle Reskin Theatre where Justin Ivan Brown draws titters as a stock gay character, the modern stage manager. But he redeems himself from irksome stereotype in 1930s scenes as a dashing young actor who dreams of heading west as well. He tries to coax the ingénue, the lovely and intelligent Julie Layton, to go along.
Donna Weinsting is fine as the modern mother of the TV commercial actor, but really rockets into the stratosphere as the protective Yiddish momma of Ms. Layton's sweet, FDR-era newcomer to the stage, the sort of hot-tempered character every good farce demands. And Ms. Weinsting is great, being tempted from her protective role by the promise of stardom.
Through May 20, 2012, at the Jewish Community Center, #2 Millstone Drive, a block west of Lindbergh on Schuetz Rd. Schuetz Rd. is located between Olive St. Rd. and Page Blvd. For more information call (314) 442-3283 or visit them on-line at www.newjewishtheatre.org
* Denotes Member, Actors Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.
Photo by John Lamb