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‘Lies My Father Told Me’

Folksbiene tries something new; restages old movie

 
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In ‘Lies My Father Told Me,’ writer Ted Allan relives his Montreal childhood.

The 99-year-old Folksbiene, under the executive direction of Bryna Wasserman, has been trying a lot of new things lately.

This season, its mainstage production is a musical version of the 1975 Academy Award-nominated film “Lies My Father Told Me.” It’s based on a memoir by Ted Allan about his youth in 1920s Montreal. Wasserman, who previously ran the Segal Centre for the Performing Arts in Montreal, introduced the musical there in 2005. Allan’s memories took many forms: first a short story, it was then a radio play, and later a play with music. A straight dramatic version ran at New York’s Jewish Repertory Theater in 1986.

The show at the Baruch Performing Arts Center crowds a huge set onto the relatively small stage and then introduces a cast of 17 — the largest the Folksbiene has ever employed — to tell the unsurprising story of little David, his beloved Zaida, and his perennial-failure father, Harry. While Zaida is loyal to the old ways of Torah and humble work — he’s a rag and bottle man — Harry is constantly scheming to make a fortune.

His inventions, such as a permanent crease in men’s pants, never quite work, but that doesn’t discourage him. As long as he can convince his father-in-law to give him seed money, he keeps going. While the loving and kind-hearted Zaida represents the traditional Jewish world, the mercurial and mean Harry symbolizes the materialism and narcissism of the new.

I think I’ve seen a lot of old Yiddish movies with the same plot. Regardless, the Jews who came to North America quickly got rid of their old ways and joyfully embraced the new. Unfortunately, that’s too nuanced a view for “Lies My Father Told Me,” even though the character of the adult David as narrator could have added some subtlety.

The 16 songs by Elan Kunin, all in English, are tuneful, though not particularly memorable, and show little humor except for one funny number, “Bankrupt.” David is played by the energetic Alex Dreier; Chuck Karel plays Zaida, the role performed by Theodore Bikel in Montreal. Both Dreier and Karel do a fine job (Karel has a beautiful baritone voice), and there’s a lot of talent on stage. This Montreal street has a resident prostitute, an anti-Semitic Irish neighbor, a bunch of kids, a lovable Communist, and others, but the script does not provide enough for them all to do. There are some enjoyable dance numbers, which feel cramped by the tiny space. A smaller, simpler set might have given the production a bit of breathing room. Zaida’s horse, Ferdeleh, is invisible but seems real enough; other characters might have existed in our imagination, too.

One odd choice comes in the second act, after David’s mother has given birth to another son. Until now the show has been strictly PG, but suddenly David announces he wants to nurse just as his baby brother is doing. This leads to a comical conversation with Zaida that feels weirdly out of place, as if we had suddenly been dropped into another show. That could be entirely a personal reaction, but some people might feel uncomfortable bringing young children.

“Lies My Father Told Me” is a deeply Jewish show, no matter the language it is performed in, and for theatergoers who enjoy nostalgic reminiscences, the musical should be satisfying. The world of Montreal Jewry does not seem all that different from the Lower East Side in the 1920s — a lot of people torn between the old and the new, young people adapting to a very different culture, and children finding fun wherever they are.

 
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‘This Is Our Youth’

It is the early 1980s, and three Jewish young adults meet in an Upper West Side apartment.

They are the children of relatively affluent left-leaning parents, “the last pathetic remnants of Upper West Side Jewish liberalism,” as one of the three describes them, but of course that has not protected them from the vicissitudes of life.

In “This Is Our Youth,” playwright Kenneth Lonergan captures with humor and pathos that particular stage of our lives when our psychic pain has not yet calcified into bitterness but has begun to set into its final form. Lonergan’s sensitive ear for the way young people express themselves makes the play both bitingly funny and deeply insightful into the myriad ways we disappoint ourselves and others.

 

‘The Law of Return’

“I am one of a kind and you need me,” Jay Pollard announces to his Navy intelligence superior in the off-off-Broadway play “The Law of Return.”

He describes his Navy mission as the obligation “to save lives for a safe home.” But which lives and what home? Playwright Martin Blank does not present any clear-cut answers in this crisply written and directed play (Fourth Street Theatre in the East Village) about the notorious American spy who still is serving a 30-year sentence for espionage on behalf of Israel.

Was Pollard a traitor to the country of his birth and to the nation that entrusted him with its secrets when he passed information to one of its closest allies? Was he a righteous Jew who did everything necessary to protect the Jewish homeland, a country where he finally felt at home? Was he a naive weirdo who imagined that as the smartest guy in the room he would never get played by opposing security services?

 

Are you listening?

The case for Israeli music

Growing up in New Jersey, we didn’t listen to much Israeli music. Sure, we would sing “Al Kol Eileh” and “Bashana Haba’a” from time to time, but that was about it. The lyrics were hard to understand… and since the internet hadn’t been invented yet, you needed to find a real, live Israeli to translate for you.

Jewish music, however, was a different story. The music was available at my local Judaica store, the lyrics were either in English or borrowed from prayers we recited regularly in shul, and of course, we listened regularly to Art Raymond on WEVD Radio. As the son of a cantor, I grew up listening to Jewish music… but Israeli music was completely off my radar.

 

RECENTLYADDED

Hoaxacaust

What’s the most sacred concept in American Jewish life today?

Religious ritual? Sex? Motherhood? Of course not; those topics are routinely mocked, often savagely.

Israel? Maybe, but there are plenty of voices willing to criticize, especially when there is no war.

No, it’s the Holocaust. That seminal event quickly shuts even the most irreverent mouths, and it’s that nimbus of inviolability that makes the one-man play “Hoaxacaust! Written and performed by Barry Levey, with the generous assistance of The Institute of Political and International Studies, Tehran” so exciting.

It should be said right off that Mr. Levey takes the Holocaust very seriously, so seriously that he is able to poke fun at the excesses and trivializations to which it is subject. In the same way that “The Producers” used broad comedy as a weapon, “Hoaxacuast!” uses sharp satire to pierce the gasbags declaiming on the subject.

 

‘This Is Our Youth’

It is the early 1980s, and three Jewish young adults meet in an Upper West Side apartment.

They are the children of relatively affluent left-leaning parents, “the last pathetic remnants of Upper West Side Jewish liberalism,” as one of the three describes them, but of course that has not protected them from the vicissitudes of life.

In “This Is Our Youth,” playwright Kenneth Lonergan captures with humor and pathos that particular stage of our lives when our psychic pain has not yet calcified into bitterness but has begun to set into its final form. Lonergan’s sensitive ear for the way young people express themselves makes the play both bitingly funny and deeply insightful into the myriad ways we disappoint ourselves and others.

 

Itzhak Perlman joins Cantor Helfgot for ‘Rejoicing’ special on PBS

 
 
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