Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

High Holidays
Goodman Theatre

Also see John's reviews of Million Dollar Quartet and Young Frankenstein

Keith Kupferer, Rengin Altay, Max Zuppa
and Ian Paul Custer

Hearing the concept of High Holidays, a family play inspired by Alan Gross's memories of his own childhood in Skokie, Illinois, it's not going to sound like a must. There's nothing new about such plays—with dramas like The Glass Menageries or comedies like Brighton Beach Memoirs we've seen the full range of this form on stage for years. Nothing new about 1963, either. The year of this play's setting is hot as of late, as fans of the recently completed third season of TV's "Mad Men" will attest. But, even though one may expect it to cover familiar territory, High Holidays is so well written, directed and performed that audiences really ought to see it. It starts out pleasingly enough, as the story of 13-year-old Billy Roman, preparing for his Bar Mitzvah just two months away and hating his Hebrew studies and memorizations for his big day. It gradually winds into a story of the other family members and ends up somewhere quite unexpected and moving.

On the day before the day on which Rosh Hashanah begins—a day which Billy convinces his parents is its own Jewish holiday, thus cancelling his Hebrew school class—Billy is more absorbed with fantasies of playing with the Chicago Bears and being an American Indian than memorizing sections of the Torah. At this point, mother Essie is mostly concerned about making dinner for the holiday and keeping Billy from destroying the backyard, but her challenges mount as her shoe salesman husband Nate returns from the store he owns with his father, and older son Bobby returns home from college for the holiday.

Bobby, or Rob as he prefers to be called now, is an aspiring folk singer and fan of the new sensation Bob Dylan. Over dinner, he drops the bombshell that he hasn't actually been attending classes at Indiana University and is planning to move out to San Francisco with friends and pursue a career in music. With that, the opening shot of the 1960s war between the generations has been fired. Nate's two goals as a father have been to see his sons have Bar Mitzvahs and graduate from college. With Rob's announcement and Billy's reluctance to study Hebrew, both goals are now threatened. How this affects Nate's feelings of manhood in light of his relationship with his immigrant father becomes the point of the play, and Gross delves more deeply and honestly into this theme than one would expect from watching the scenes early in act one.

Gross has given director Steven Robman and cast four meaty, award-baiting, rich characters to bring to life. The four actors all deliver the goods—laughs, histrionics and heartbreak. Most central is Keith Kupferer as Nate, a decent and mildly stern dad who's not above arguing about the best route from Bloomington, Indiana, to Chicago. Nate proves to be far more vulnerable than he initially lets on, as he reacts to Rob's rebellion. His wife Essie is a tough but protective mom to the boys, freely dispensing Jewish guilt to the man and boys of her family and desperately trying to keep control of the family. As Rob, Ian Paul Custer perfectly catches the combination of arrogance, self-centeredness and naiveté of the son rejecting the suburban lifestyle his family worked a generation to adopt. Custer also effectively plays the subtext of Rob's fear as he begins to realize the full consequences of his decision.

Max Zuppa, who in real life is about to turn 13 like his character Billy, is a gem. He can switch from Billy acting out fantasies in the backyard, to manipulating his parents, sadly capitulating when he knows he's lost, and feeling helpless when Rob's conflict with their parents threatens to rip the family apart. Zuppa is charming and entirely genuine on stage, achieving the difficult balance of playing a kid who's a bit theatrical without giving a theatrical-feeling performance himself. Under Robman's direction, all four performers show expert comic timing as well as a perfect sense of how to navigate the changes in tone as the situation becomes more tense.

Gross places these four great characters in a very real historical place and time. He skillfully weaves in cultural references to things like Life magazine and Ban-Lon socks without contrivance. Billy and Rob segue from imitating Laurel and Hardy one moment to singing "Do Wah Diddy Diddy" the next. He cites bits of Chicago history, like the migration of the Jewish community from its first Chicago neighborhood of Albany Park to the northern suburbs and the presence of "hillbillies" in Uptown. Oddly, he gives a fictitious name of Iroquois to the family's suburb, which is so obviously Skokie from the details of the script and from the design of the family house depicted in Kevin Depinet's detailed and realistic set, perfectly dressed with furniture and appliances of the period.

In this world premiere production at the Goodman, High Holidays is at 2:45 a good 20-30 minutes longer than it needs to be, but it shouldn't be hard for Gross to trim the fat. He might also want to ease up just a bit on the angst—it's not enough that Nate is a World War II vet, but he also had to fight in the Battle of the Bulge? These are minor concerns, though, for a play that manages to transcend the expectations of a traditional premise and become a thoughtful reflection on the meaning of manhood and an empathetic look at both sides of the generation gap, which would continue to explode for at least the next six or seven years after the night depicted in this play.

High Holidays will be performed through November 29, 2009 in the Goodman's Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago. For tickets, call 312-443-3800, visit the Box Office or

Photo: Liz Lauren

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