Review: ‘Telegram from Heaven’

Manoff has never written or directed a play before and her inexperience is evident. The play meanders annoyingly until the final 20 minutes, when it finally finds some dramatic and thematic focus.

Manoff has never written or directed a play before and her inexperience is evident. The play meanders annoyingly until the final 20 minutes, when it finally finds some dramatic and thematic focus.

And the actors, with a couple of exceptions, are unconvincing in their attempts to create characters from the 1940s East Bronx.

The play, which Manoff and Dennis Bailey adapted from Arnold Manoff’s 1942 novel, centers around Sylvia Singer (Valerie Landsburg), a young Jewish woman living in the Bronx with her younger brother and widowed mother. This being 1941 , the effects of the Depression hang on and Sylvia is having little luck finding a job in spite of her high school diploma and stenographic skills.

Nor is she making much progress in finding a suitor. The only well-to-do man who has ever shown interest has left the scene and her current boyfriend Paul (Peter Gregory) is crude and immature.

The play follows Sylvia’s attempts to cope, which include taking a demeaning job, warding off boorish men, and trying to protect the pride of her mother (Renee Taylor).

At the end of the play, she informs the audience that she has learned lessons about the importance of caring about others, but it is difficult to discern where or how she received such insight or in what way it has changed her behavior.

The writing suggests Sylvia is a woman with strength and spunk, yet Landsburg plays her as perpetually depressed. She is given a good number of acerbic put-down lines, but she delivers them without bite; it’s as if she has swallowed all of her anger.

Psychologically speaking, this is plausible enough, but it makes for a rather colorless lead character. The creators might want to rethink their approach to Sylvia.

Landsburg isn’t entirely comfortable with the ’40s lingo, but neither are most of her colleagues.

One exception is Michael Kostroff, who is disgustingly amusing as the 1940s version of a nerd. The other is Taylor, who brings a genuineness and poignancy to her portrayal of a Russian emigrant who is used to adapting to shifting circumstances.

Manoff and Bailey tell their story in a series of 5- to 10-minute scenes, most of which fizzle dramatically. Even the long-awaited mother-daughter confrontation amounts to very little; they squabble a bit, after which the whole thing is apparently forgotten. This does not make for gripping drama.

This 50-year-old material (Daniel Saks’ set nicely evokes the 1940s, and does so without sentiment) does retain its relevance.

Its feminist sentiments feel quite current, and many people today will relate to Sylvia’s hopelessness in the face of long-term unemployment. Manoff’s faith in the material is clearly justified; it’s too bad her adaptation leaves so much to be desired.

Telegram from Heaven

(Hudson Theater, Hollywood; 99 seats; $ 18 top)


Robert J. Linden and Harriet Newman Leve, in association with Blumsack/Debreceni/Reilly and the Hudson Theater, present a play by Dinah Manoff and Dennis Bailey, adapted from the novel by Arnold Manoff; directed by Dinah Manoff.


Sets, Daniel Saks; lighting, Doc Ballard; costumes, Ileane Meltzer. Reviewed July 24, 1992; runs through Sept. 6.


Sylvia Singer ... Valerie Landsburg Paul Drucker ... Peter Gregory Charlie ... Aaron Heyman Rose Singer ... Renee Taylor Alex Singer ... Andrew Mark Berman Francey ... Rhonda Aldrich Sheldon Silverstein ... Michael Kostroff Mrs. Greenstein ... Edith Fields Telegram From Heaven" is clearly a very personal project for actress Dinah Manoff, who co-wrote and directed this adaptation of the novel by her late father. Thus it's sad to report that, for an audience, this labor of love is a labor to sit through.
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