Fire Escape

Overmyer is best known in theater circles for his often-produced 1985 comedy On the Verge. An entertainment Renaissance man, he has written for television (St. Elsewhere, The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd) and currently works as a writer and producer for The Cosby Mysteries. He also adapts and translates classic texts, most recently Figaro/Figaro, which previewed in December at the Yale Repertory Theater. He has called Dark Rapture his midlife-crisis play, evolving out of a the image of a man watching a fire who was "about to leap through a window of opportunity and start his life over." Thus the stunning first scene. Would that he had sustained the power of that image throughout the entire play.

At first glance, two plays could not be more dissimilar than the stylish, contemporary Dark Rapture and Herb Gardner's ethnic memory piece, Conversations With My Father, which premiered on Broadway in 1992 and is currently at Hollywood Performing Arts in Hollywood. In fact, had I not seen the two almost back-to-back, I may not have recognized the obvious thematic parallel. Both are about the impossibility of turning one's back on the past and refashioning life without a history. As a character in Dark Rapture notes, "History is a living wound." No matter how far they attempt to run from it, the characters in both plays discover that their histories hunt them down and haunt them. But where Dark Rapture is slick, Conversations With My Father is raw; where Rapture is purposefully enigmatic and illusive, Conversations is in-your-face and angry. And where Rapture's characters change identities by changing sunglasses, the people in Conversations wrestle the daunting legacies of Russian pogroms, Nazi extermination camps, and unloving fathers in an attempt to free themselves. In neither play is anyone easily liberated.

Gardner's drama tells the familiar story of a successful son trying, long into adulthood, to win the admiration of a difficult father. He tells his tale through the contrived structure of adult Charlie (Tim Lewis) looking back on scenes remembered from life in his father's lower Manhattan tavern, from 1936 through 1976. The play is infused with a cloying nostalgia both for what was (Charlie's mother's Jewish food, the protectiveness of older brother Joey, the witticisms of long-dead tavern habitues) and for what wasn't (acknowledgement of Charlie by his stubborn and embittered father), and Gardner lards the dialogue with sentimental lines such as "Love doesn't make the world go round -- looking for it does." But the undeniable foundation of the play is the portrait of Eddie Ross (Michael Goldsmith), born Itsel Goldberg, the father determined to shake off the cloak of his painful heritage and remake himself as a tough-talking, hard-drinking, combative New World Jew. Goldsmith succeeds at effecting Eddie's transformation and, at the same time, conveying the price his character must pay. His performance is powerful and disturbing.

In addition to Goldsmith, particularly compelling is Walter Zukovski as Zaretsky, an indomitable Yiddish theater actor who, with Eddie, trades terrible memories of the Cossacks. One of Zaretsky's speeches marks the best writing in the play, a painfully wry recollection of the day after a terrible raid on the pair's Russian hometown, complete with the surreal imagery of feathers blooming in the trees and Cossacks wearing the suits and cloaks of dead Jews; it calls to mind the tradition of Eastern European masters such as Kafka and Kundera.

Stage Notes
The theater world lost a luminary two weeks ago when George Abbott died at his home on Sunset Island. The Broadway producer, director, playwright, and actor was 107 years old. Winner of 40 Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize, Abbott brought us memorable shows such as The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, and Fiorello! He not only enjoyed a productive and celebrated life in the theater but also encouraged countless others' theater careers. A visionary entertainer whose own career spanned the century, Abbott once was asked what he considered the greatest innovation in the theater during his lifetime. He answered, "Electricity.

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