By John Thomason
By Benjy Caplan
By Artburst Miami
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Daniel Reskin
If playwright Geoffrey Hassman were a high school freshman, and if his play Jacob's Blanket A currently running at the Drama Center in Deerfield Beach A were his first attempt at writing, I might cut him some slack. Some of the characters are endearing, the pace is not slow, and the story could be engaging if handled with far more expertise.
However, Hassman is not an adolescent; according to his biography, he has already spent twenty years running an interior design firm. His view of the world should therefore be somewhat mature and realistic, his grasp of compelling dialogue imbued with a bit of sophistication. And his humor should be far less sophomoric. Furthermore, his new play, according to the producers, is a "re-creation" of the play Peppy and the Goldfarbs, which premiered in South Florida more than a year ago to almost uniformly poor reviews. If Hassman learned anything from those critiques and was capable of improving, rewriting, let alone re-creating the work, he should have demonstrated significant growth with this draft. Unfortunately, he does not. Although I did not see the original, I shudder to imagine what it must have been like, especially if this incarnation is supposed to be an improvement.
Many audience members, primed by Steven Spielberg's depiction of the Holocaust in Schindler's List, will be susceptible to revering, respecting, and even reacting to this juvenile attempt at storytelling, even though it contains enough offensive stereotypes to light up the Anti-Defamation League's switchboard. (It hardly matters whether Hassman is a Jew; self-hatred is not an uncommon phenomenon.)
This is the story of the Goldfarbs, set in the Seventies and the Nineties, who live in Great Neck, Long Island. Mother Rhoda wears a lot of gold jewelry and worries about what people will think of her at "the club." Rhoda's own mother, simply named Grandma, speaks Yiddish spliced with English, loves her grandchildren fiercely, keeps parakeets for pets, and is about to move to Boca Raton. Harvey, Rhoda's husband, is a well-meaning jerk who has made tons of money in the half-size dress business, and now mopes around the house while being brow-beaten by his frigid wife.
But wait, it gets worse. Oldest son Benny wears a silk shirt, several gold chains, and is married to the world's most obnoxious Jewish princess. His brother Philly is gay and wants to be an interior designer. Finally, sister Janice is overweight, has just left her first husband (who lives on the water in tony King's Point), and is about to move in with a black man named Lincoln, a fact she cheerfully throws in her mother's face.
Are there any Jewish cliches Hassman has overlooked? If so, it must have been inadvertent, for he made a diligent effort to cram this family full of them. Not amusing, not believable, and certainly not original.
The central conflict of the play arises from the fact that Mother doesn't love anyone, including Grandma, which has the effect of splitting the family apart. I won't be giving away a thing by telling you that Mother can't love because she lost her first child in a concentration camp. Hassman's hints about this secret become too obvious far too soon. You'd have to be remarkably dense not to know early on that Rhoda and Grandma were at Auschwitz or some similar ring of Hell. And of course they would have lost their families. And of course, in the end, everyone would confess the truth through long, melodramatic monologues, crying with abandon and holding each other tightly.
I could have seen a five-minute trailer for this plot and guessed the rest. As a matter of fact, Hassman might be better off penning screenplays, which these days seem to specialize in trite stories and implausibly happy endings. He also wouldn't have to worry about injecting much wit or eloquence into the movies. Writing for the stage, however, is considerably more demanding. Hassman's dialogue is plucked straight from B movies ("Why can't you love me, Mother?"), and his jokes A well, let's just say that one of them involves fish and gynecologists. Noel Coward it is not. I didn't smile even once.
For the most part, the cast holds up admirably under this sinking script, partly due to Joseph Adler's smooth direction. Ellen Simmons is relentlessly chilly but as believable as possible given her role as Mom Rhoda, and Margot Moreland unleashes a lot of energy (even if some of it climbs over the top) in the role of Janice. As Grandma, Genevieve Chase is truly an annoying stereotype come to life, but she can do little else with the role as it is written. The men A Matthew Baron as Benny, Brian Santucci as Philly, and Phil Kraysler as Dad Harvey A don't lend any added life to their flat characters, but they don't embarrass themselves, either.
The single outstanding performance doesn't arrive until act two, which is set eighteen years after act one. Grandma has died and Benny is remarried, this time to a former porn queen named Angel Hair, played to perfection by Elle Maslanova. She manages to create a lovable bimbo who is also wise, and is a real person rather than a caricature. Maslanova deserves some kind of special-achievement award for reaching this level of excellence in such a weak production. And she proves that great actors can work wonders even with small parts and slight scripts.
I would personally like to throttle Byron Keith Byrd for creating one of the ugliest sets possible to serve as the Goldfarbs' kitchen. It was so pink it hurt my eyes A and almost got to my stomach. Note to Byrd: I grew up in the town next to Great Neck, and although the people there tend to be a bit showy, they do not have such hideous taste.
As for Geoffrey Hassman, my advice would be to put aside Jacob's Blanket, with all its bathos and cliches, and spend the next year reading scripts and attending plays to absorb the rhythm of language, the art of theatrical dialogue, the subtlety of solid dramatic plotting. Then he might try something with two characters, or just one act. Writing is a talent, but it is also a craft that normally takes years to develop. Jumping into the deep end, as he has with a full-length play spanning two generations and featuring eight characters, has proved to be exceedingly dangerous and no doubt dispiriting. To work on another draft of this play without improving his basic writing skills would be tantamount to drowning for once and for all.