My Yiddishe Drama

Lately, there's been a lot of tongue-clucking and finger-pointing at Brian C. Smith's Off Broadway Theatre. The artistic director stands accused of pandering to a predominantly Jewish audience in the (often futile) attempt to make a profit producing live theater. And the critics who make these accusations certainly offer enough proof: Smith's entire season - The Immigrant, Cantorial, and the current production, The God of Isaac - comprises plays uniquely tailored to subjects of the Yiddish persuasion. One commentator recently wrote, concerning The God of Isaac, that "maybe you had to be Jewish" to enjoy it. Well, Ma'am, you are partly right. But your comment also strays dangerously from the real issue.

There's nothing more impressive than a playwright who captures the nuances and eccentricities of a cultural enclave. While watching an American production of the play Shirley Valentine, which chronicles the day-to-day trials of an English housewife, my friend became one of the only audience members who collapsed into laughter at a joke about serving a specific meal on a certain day - steak and potatoes every Friday, for example. This friend's mother, like so many suburban English women of her generation, makes lamb on Monday, meat patties on Tuesday, and so on, without variance. That Willy Russell as playwright noted and employed this uniquely British ritual made the piece all the richer.

For me, many similar moments in The God of Isaac brought forth warm memories, laughter, and admiration for writer James Sherman's acute eye. Isaac Adams, a third generation Jew in search of his identity, marries a "hot" Christian blonde, then becomes aghast when she tries to throw away a grocery bag, explaining that the precious items serve perfectly as trash bags. She, on the other hand, can't understand what's wrong with buying plastic trash bags any more than my WASP husband understood why my mother amassed enough grocery bags - neatly folded and wedged between refrigerator and wall - to bag food for the entire population of China.

For Jews, the play contains a host of such accurate, amusing, and sometimes tragi-comic gems. When Isaac goes to a rabbi to ascertain the "meaning" of his religion, the old man simply advises him to vacation in Israel, then proceeds to whip out photos of his own family's last trip. When writers capture the essential nuts and bolts of a people in this way, stereotype as a term doesn't always fit. Sometimes the more apropos word is truth.

Unfortunately, along with his fine observations about contemporary Jews who cling to the title but know next to nothing about the actual religion or heritage, Sherman also diminishes the piece with violently overdone cliches, as well as boring exposition, pointless shticks modeled on films such as The Wizard of Oz, and a nasal mother barking predictable orders at the lead character (her son) from the audience. But the worst of Sherman's sins lies at the very heart of playwriting.

Here's the basic idea: Hopefully, the author starts with a premise (in this case, the need for a modern man to find his roots), then adds a plot to skillfully communicate his theme. The lead character undergoes a series of events, beneath which lies the (best left unspoken) premise.

In The God of Isaac, not only is the premise - "What does it mean to be a Jew?" - drilled into your head ad nauseam, the plot never surfaces. Using the backdrop of the Skokie, Illinois, controversy during the late Seventies, when the neo-Nazis sued for the right to march in a town largely inhabited by Holocaust survivors, Sherman never milks the situation for its rich plot potential. Instead he beams in on Adams, a reporter in the area, who runs from Jewish girlfriend to shiksa wife to Jewish mother, Jewish father, rabbi, tailor, butcher, baker, you name it, in an increasingly annoying attempt to learn what Judaism means. Isaac explains his search to the audience, other characters explain the premise to him, he reinterprets the information again, until finally, by the end of these polemics, one longs to yell, "Enough already! Either be a Jew or don't, but make up your mind - and do it off stage."

As boring as the play gets, the production shines. Each of the actors, most notably Larry Belkin (who also did a solid job in The Immigrant) as Isaac and Stephanie Heller as the sympathetic Chaya, bring both reality and energy to their roles. Dennis Cockrum as director, also doubling in a variety of bit parts, ably wears many hats, and Nels Anderson's deceptively simple set demands viewing for its remarkable ingenuity. While Belkin dominates the show and almost manages to make his endless monologues interesting with an easy charm and skill, Heller impressed me most by endowing her Jewish American Princess with genuine pain. Mazel tov for taking the ultimate stereotype and giving it a soul.

The issue of whether a play pleases its audience or not obscures the ultimate goal of dramatic criticism: Is this work worthy of stage treatment, and does it address issues universal to the human condition? As far as pleasing the audience, Sherman succeeds, and there's not a damn thing wrong with that. The mistakes emerge from the work itself - not a play at all, just a too-narrow, sometimes endearing discussion of cultural labels versus true faith.

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