No wall between “The Immigrant” and George Street Playhouse

Ever wonder what happens to the inhabitants of Anatevka after they are driven from their village at the end of “Fiddler on the Roof”? We know that some of Tevye’s family will be staying with Uncle Abram in America (he doesn’t know it yet), and that two of the daughters are in Siberia and Krakow (and Yente’s off to Jerusalem), but there must have been hundreds more than are represented in the “Fiddler” exit tableau.

I might have encountered one of those refugees at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in the person of Haskell Harelik, a twenty-something Russian Jew whose harrowing journey from Anatevka (why not?) to the U.S. is enacted in the opening minutes of “The Immigrant.” Mark Harelik’s 1985 play is based on his actual grandfather’s 1909 arrival and ensuing assimilation into the U.S., but the characters and subject matter transcend the specific. They are as relevant today as when the play is set.

Benjamin Pelteson as The Immigrant  [Photos: T. Charles Erickson]

            Having arrived through the port of Galveston, Haskell (Benjamin Pelteson), fatigued from wheeling his barrow of penny bananas, ends up in the front yard of Milton and Ima Perry (R. Ward Duffy and Gretchen Hall) in the rural community of Hamilton, Texas. (Between 1906 and ’14, U.S. Immigration diverted some 10,000 Jewish immigrants westward to avoid their concentration in New York City. How did that work out?) After some language-barrier confusion, which Ima tries to overcome BY TALKING LOUD AND SLOW, the devout Christian woman convinces her banker husband to give Haskell a room for the night, which, after some awkwardness over having a Jewish houseguest, turns into six weeks.

That ethnic awkwardness, even among the townsfolk, is minimized in favor of exploring the relationships and the Harelik family lineage. Specific as that seems, it represents the experience of countless numbers of escapees, particularly Jews, from the pogroms of Eastern Europe in the early 20th Century and from Western European oppression a generation later.

Benjamin Petleson and R. Ward Duffy (Talking with one’s hands is a universal language.)

The first act is a seamless progression of Haskell’s assimilation and the growing bond of friendship between the unlikely couples after Haskell’s young wife Leah (Lauriel Friedman) finally joins him. The process is not without some stumbling blocks, but the overall tone is welcoming. With Milton’s financial backing, including to purchase a horse (Tevye would be pleased), Haskell’s wheelbarrow morphs into a fruit stand and eventually a grocery store.

The second act is crowded with Harelik-family details and some disconcerting melodrama. When Leah becomes pregnant, she turns to Ima for comfort and the two establish a warm mother-daughter relationship, which Hall and Friedman portray as if it were true. (Their naturalistic kitchen scene is a gem.) The young immigrant couple has two more sons (or three – I lost count) in rapid succession and we zoom through their growing-up years. (They do not appear.) The youngest of the sons, aWorld War II enlistee, was the playwright’s father.

Kitchen realism: Gretchen Hall, left, and Lauriel Friedman

There’s some business about Milton not having been baptized, which of course presages his demise, and an allusion or two to Milton and Ima’s son, who left for parts unknown years before. In the climactic scene Milton and Ima are guests at Shabbat dinner, apparently for the first time – after about 30 years of close friendship. Really? At any rate, the dinner-rituals are conveniently explained to the guests – and through them to the audience. At that dinner, the two men argue over America’s role in the incipient war and its fallout in Europe (read: Germany), with Haskell urging intervention in opposition to Milton’s isolationism. Finally insulted on a personal level (about the missing son), Milton storms out, effectively ending their friendship. (A later sentimental vignette recalls “Fiddler.”)

Pelteson is excellent throughout. As Haskell initially grapples with the language, the actor mines the humor without poking fun at the character. Milton progresses from wary tolerance (of Haskell) to gruff affection, and finally to hostility. Duffy meets the challenge effectively, as does Ms. Friedman as Leah, at first shy and fearful and later secure as wife and mother (and the playwright’s grandmother).

         Ima is the pivotal role, the only one with substantial two-scenes with each of the others. Ms. Hall is wonderful. Ima interacts differently with each character, but it all emanates from the one multi-faceted woman. Hall’s Ima is a pre-modern feminist – if only the designation existed at that time in Hamilton, Texas.

Under Jim Jack’s smooth direction, the relationships grow and deepen over the years, with the cast’s age changes clear, not overdone. Jason Simms’ scenic design allows for multiple locations without clutter, and Asta Bennie Hostetter’s costumes are ethnic- and period-authentic, the latter modeled to perfection by Ms. Hall.

According to the playwright’s bio, “The Immigrant” was the most widely produced play in the country in 1991. I saw it for the first time last week, and am glad that I did. You would be too.

Through April 7 at George Street Playhouse,103 College Farm Road, New Brunswick NJ. Performances Wed. & Fri. at 8pm; Thurs. at 2; Sat. at 2 &8; Sun. at 2pm & 7pm. For tickets ($25-$78): 732-246-7717 or at www.georgestreetplayhouse.org   Howdy, Philip

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Want some journalistic intrigue? Go to “The Source”

There is some real good acting on display these days at New Jersey Repertory Company. Not only do the three cast members of “The Source,” Jack Canfora’s trippy excursion into the world of news management, toss off their snappy dialogue with wit and precision, they also appear comfortable with the inter-twined plot that might stymie lesser talents. In a scenario that swings non-sequentially among places and dates, that plot hinges on the ethics of gathering the news versus the business of disseminating it. It would seem that in Canfora’s view, ‘journalistic integrity’ is an oxymoron. (I will forgo a riposte.)

A two-year old phone-hacking issue, for which media giant International News Corporation had apologized, is back in the news via a leak by an unknown source, threatening INC’s acquisition of media giant Clear Sky. If that sounds vaguely familiar, any similarity to real Murdochs – er, persons – is intentional.

Conan McCarty, left, Eleanor Handley, Andrew Rein   [Photos: SuzAnne Barabas]

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Blog, Professional, Regional

A family talks it all out in “Theo” at Two River Theater

Criticizing a play for being too wordy might seem counter-intuitive. Character dialogue, after all, is words. But unlike narrative stories or essays, plays need to balance telling with showing. Martin Moran’s “Theo,” world-premiering at Two River Theater Company, relies mostly on telling, with what showing there is serving to point up the imbalance. If good intentions were enough, “Theo” would be a masterpiece.  As it is, with a boatload of good intentions crammed into one dysfunctional-family drama, the result is diffuse and, at nearly three hours (including intermission), overlong.

Brenda Wehle, left, Andrea Syglowski and Jesse James Keitel as three generations of Flynn women [Photos: T. Charles Erickson]

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Along Roll We Merrily

I am a charter member of the Spoilers Avoidance Association, but it is impossible to write about “Merrily We Roll Along” without revealing – to those not already aware – that the 1981 Stephen Sondheim (music and Lyrics) and George Furth (book) show runs in reverse; each of its scenes predates the previous one, regressing from 1980 to 1957.  So noted, suggesting that the original ran only sixteen performances (after 52 contentious previews) because it was ahead of its time is either profoundly ironic or just a lame wisecrack. Whichever, the musical examines the myth of the American Dream by tracing the lives of its central characters in a dozen annotated scenes (1976, ’73, etc.) from middle-age to youth. The Fiasco Theatre staging, at Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre, compresses it into one 110-minute act. But for some of the songs, it seemed longer.

Over the years, “Merrily” has achieved cult status, due to its form and Sondheim’s inventive score and, it can be argued, in spite of Furth’s clichéd book, which is nearly superfluous. The story centers on Hollywood producer Franklin Shepard (Ben Steinfeld), whose success comes at the expense of personal and professional betrayal of close friends Mary Flynn (Jessie Austrian) and Charley Kringas (Manu Narayan), who shared early show-biz struggles with Frank as a bonded threesome. By the end (the play’s beginning), Mary has gone from having “a little wine with dinner to the reverse,” and Charley from Frank’s close collaborator to a cast-off.

Manu Narayan, left, Jessie Austrian, Ben Steinfeld [Photos: Joan Marcus]

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“The Play That Goes Wrong” Goes Right Off-Broadway

Something funny happened to “The Play That Goes Wrong” on the way from Broadway to off-Broadway. Fear not; everything that was funny during its nearly two-year run in the 922-seat Lyceum Theatre is just as funny at the 360-seat New World Stages, where it re-opened this week. The difference, though, is a subtle pickup in how the audience relates to the characters. For me – and I sensed it throughout the house – it became personal, akin to cheering-on a perpetually losing team. But a ton more fun.

“The Play That Goes Wrong” cast and crew in their class(y) photo. {Pics: Jeremy Daniel]

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A blazing performance as Nina Simone in “Little Girl Blue”

My memories of seeing Nina Simone perform in Philadelphia and Atlantic City jazz clubs in the late 1950s/early 60s are soft-focus, because, well, do the math. What does remain sharp, though, is how her singing affected those of us fortunate enough to be her fans and catch her appearances. Her upbeat, syncopated stylings were infectious, and her soul-searching blues laments were spiritual, in every sense. Her self-accompanied “I Loves You, Porgy,” sung hunched down over the keyboard as if singing only for herself, was exquisite.

My memory of Laiona Michelle portraying Nina Simone in “Little Girl Blue: The Nina Simone Musical” is much sharper, not just because it was last week at George Street Playhouse, but because Ms. Michelle’s evocation of the iconic vocalist, musician and activist is an amazing piece of work. A creation, to be sure, but equally important, a re-creation of the life, times and persona of Ms. Simone. Not only does she virtually disappear into her subject, but except for the songs, Nina’s own and a dozen others, Michelle also wrote the emotionally stirring show. (Among those other composers are Judy Collins, Randy Newman, Jacques Brel and Rodgers & Hart. That Ms. Michelle sings them so well is thrilling. That she seamlessly integrates them into her show, along with themes by Johann Sebastian Bach, is near genius.)

Laiona Michelle as Nina Simone [Photos: T Charles Erickson]

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