Be forewarned: If you enter CSU's Factory Theatre to see Alan Brandt's 2-1/2 Jews, you may be struck by a flying "Hava Nagila." This Jewish musical standard primes us for a night of strenuous Israeli folk dancing. Soon our expectations are dashed when, instead of lissome young dancers spinning like dreidels, there comes an exasperated, moose-like, middle-aged man telling us of his guilt over eating a big, fat sandwich on Yom Kippur. He goes on to recite a litany of his colorful father's offences against patriarchal dignity, including making water on a potted plant on Park Avenue when forbidden to use a plush restaurant's restroom. Within 38 seconds, while he bellows the tell-all of Yiddish aggravation, it dawns on us that we are at yet another in an unceasing line of "oy vey" plays.
Every tribe has its own variation on "oy vey" entertainment made to pander to the tastes of special-interest groups. For example, in Beauty Shop, we have Harlem belles cracking wise about no-account men and singing gospel hymns to Jesus. In WASP circles, plays like The Philadelphia Story chronicle beautiful thoroughbred Protestants sipping martinis and dropping bon mots, yet never raising their voices above a well-bred titter.
In "oy vey" plays, self-dramatizing parents traditionally overindulge in everything from food to guilt. They specialize in emasculating their children while attempting to run their lives, and they verbalize their colorful eccentricities with quaint phrases, such as when they label insidious outsiders as "momsers," "shiksas," and "schwartzes."
Playwright and art dealer Brandt, on reaching three-quarters of a century, took a hiatus from selling primitive art to take a crack at one of these kinds of plays. This first play, thinner than matzoh, brings to mind a well-meaning Hebrew-school teacher who spends half his time pounding his fists in moral indignation and the rest of the time pointing a merry finger while cracking wry jokes.
If Arthur Miller had ever decided to take a break from pumping up mankind's moral failings and decided instead to lighten up his bill of fare for the palates of the dinner-theater crowd in Boca Raton, this is precisely what he would come up with: moral failings cooked in schmaltz. The play, in the tradition of Fiddler on the Roof, chronicles the traumas of breaking away from old-world Jewish manners and mores: marrying out of the faith, marrying someone of another race ("Schwartze!"), putting career before family. The final break is represented in the third-generation grandson refusing to follow his father into the family business and using a prop girlfriend to mask his homosexuality.
This production, co-produced by Factory Theatre and Actors' Summit Theatre of Akron, gives Clevelanders a chance to see the work of a young, but well-liked, neighboring company.
The play itself manages to be good-hearted, quick, and efficient. At its best, it catches lightning flashes of human insight: how we drive away those we love with poisonous egos, and how we must keep moving, learning to adapt to a new order, or sink. At its worst, it tends to be obvious and predictable. We can spot a marriage that's about to crumble a mile off. It depends on some mighty frayed clichés, such as the stubborn old Jewish immigrant making chopped liver out of the law (see I'm Not Rappaport). There are old jokes about the bizarre others, such as Catholics. There are also the obligatory bladder-problem quips that come off like slightly stale pastry from last night's bar mitzvah.
Only one-third of the cast manages to pull the comic weight. Cleveland's Reuben Silver as the grandfather proves once and for all that you don't have to order out for a banquet. Touted as a local legend since the heyday of Dorothy Fuldheim, he earns here the accolades that have been bestowed on him for decades. This is one of those late, great career performances, where persona and role meld magnificently. Like George Burns in The Sunshine Boys, or any of John Barrymore's inspired comic film turns, Silver's performance is a goatish, hedonist delight, bringing to mind a benevolent satyr. His joy in living makes him the zeide (grandfather) that we all yearn for.
Sadly, the sparkle does not reach to the next generation. A. Neil Thackaberry is an actor of great power and presence, but he doesn't know how to inhabit the world of Jewish comedy. He lacks the self-irony; he flattens the proverbial potato latkes with a depressing Teutonic self-importance. Caught between these two raging winds as the grandson, David A. Murawski musters a beguiling compassion and sweetness, and, for those interested in such ephemera, he adds a needed soupçon of animal magnetism to the basically sexless proceedings.
The play was co-directed by Dorothy Silver and Dr. Sidney Kraus. The Silvers have specialized in directing each other for more than half a century, and here, in spite of mediocre material, they've risen to unprecedented heights. This play demonstrates once again why they are Cleveland's most well-loved theater couple.
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