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Off-Broadway offers theatrical Yiddishkeit

 
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Moses struggles with writer’s block in the production of “Moses the Author” as his assistant, Thusy, tries to help.

The New York metro theater scene is so crowded that there is always something to intrigue or gratify theatergoers searching for a Jewish experience if they are willing to look further than Broadway. This month, at least two productions offer humor and sentiment on two different aspects of Jewish life.

“Moses the Author” is part of the New York International Fringe Festival, a cornucopia of theatrical delights. Written by Andrew R. Heinze, this well-acted comic play finds Moses struggling to overcome writer’s block and finish his opus before the end arrives. Since he has a demanding co-author as well as a difficult family, he is in a desperate situation. His devoted assistant, Thusy (short for Methuselah), sympathizes. Sometimes the early stuff stands up the best, he notes. Ain’t that the truth.

“Moses the Author” is filled with hilarious lines about writing, about deadlines, about the Torah, and sounds like it was written by the smartest and funniest kid in Hebrew school. “Are You there?” Moses repeats, hoping to recapture his earlier awe-filled relationship with the Lord, but the Lord responds only intermittently and often harshly. Meanwhile, Zipporah and Yoheved have predictable mother-in-law/daughter-in-law issues living in the same tent, and Moses’ son Gershom is still single and living at home at 42. What’s the leader of the Jewish people to do?

Mr. Heinze is the award-winning author of the book “Jews and the American Soul,” and his full-length plays include “Turtles All the Way Down,” “The Invention of the Living Room,” and “Hamilton,” a semi-finalist for the 2012 National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. The play’s five-person cast is similarly accomplished, and director Amy Wright keeps the action moving smoothly. Mr. Heinze’s solution to the problem of all those cranky prohibitions, particularly the one about men laying with men, is empathic as well as clever. “Moses the Author” is so obviously in love with the biblical text and the people who know it intimately that it is surprising to realize that the word Jews is never heard.

“Moses the Author” can be seen at Fringe Venue #17, The Players Theatre (115 MacDougal St.) on Saturday, August 20, at 2 p.m.; Thursday, August 21, at 9 p.m., and Saturday, August 23, at 9:15 p.m. For information/tickets to all FringeNYC productions, go to www.FringeNYC.org.

Playwright/actor Anna Fishbeyn has a prodigious memory, which is on dramatic display in her almost-two-hour one-woman immigrant’s tale, “My Stubborn Tongue.” She has many other talents as well, including a thrilling singing voice and strong comedic impersonation skills. What she does not have is a good editor’s ruthlessness. There is a lot in “My Stubborn Tongue” (now at the New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher St.) that merits appreciation, but the play’s excessive length swamps much of it. If the author could bring herself to chop 20 minutes, she’d have a stronger production.

The talented Ms. Fishbeyn has mined her life for other solo shows: “Conversations with My Breasts” and “Sex in Mommyville.” Here she frames her story of assimilation with the completion of a doctoral dissertation on Henry James’s work as seen through Kant’s moral imperative of lying. That gets a laugh, as it should, and introduces her struggle to master colloquial American English, which defines her successful transformation from nerdy Russian Jewish child prodigy to American cool kid and back again. “You learn through humiliation,” Ms. Fishbeyn notes, telling familiar anecdotes of children’s cruelty and the new immigrant’s stunned misapprehension of American culture. “Assimilation is survival,” is her grandmother’s credo, and like most immigrants, Ms. Fishbeyn labors mightily to survive from the time she arrives in Chicago at age 9. The family, which includes her parents, aunt, and grandmother, slowly learns to navigate the Jewish Federation’s bureaucracy, then the city’s, and finally launches itself into the American firmament, landing anxiously in the middle class.

There are many humorous bits in the play, some of which work much better than others. One about her mother’s insistence that a vending machine offers free snacks is funny; another set in Bloomingdale’s goes on far too long. Overall, the play is strongest when it exhibits some of that American ironic remove that Ms. Fishbeyn satirizes so well, and weakest when she allows her acknowledged Russian melodramatic sentimentality to take over. An offstage instructor’s voice works well to undercut some of the hyper-emotionality, but there is just too much detail in “My Stubborn Tongue” for a story that everyone has heard before.

 
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‘2 by Wolf’

New Yiddish Rep introduces old British playwright

“The hunted are all on the same side,” says the old Jewish merchant in the first of two one-act plays by British writer Wolf Mankowitz, now Off-Off Broadway at The Cell, 338 West 23rd St.

The merchant is speaking to an Irish revolutionary who is hiding out in his upstairs shtiebel in Cork in the early 1920s. That sentiment is central to Mankowitz’s worldview, as it was to millions of left-leaning Jews in the twentieth century. Their perspective arose in a world where most Jews were poor, and in the way of the world were often crushed under the heels of those who were richer and more powerful.

New Yiddish Rep has adapted two plays by Mankowitz that show off his deep Jewish roots and his identification with the oppressed. In the first, “The Irish Hebrew Lesson,” the aforementioned revolutionary sneaks into the house where the old man is davening to hide from the Black and Tans, or British police, who are after him.

 

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