Review: ‘Have You Spoken to Any Jews Lately?’

Larry Pine (the very fine Astrov in Louis Malle's "Vanya on 42nd Street") plays Jack Horowitz, a successful screenwriter who has given up Hollywood, fame and fortune to take up full-time residence in a Catskills-like resort area. He writes for the local paper and lives the low-key life of an exurban squire with his beautiful Irish Catholic wife, Flannery (Christina Haag), and their daughter.

Larry Pine (the very fine Astrov in Louis Malle’s “Vanya on 42nd Street”) plays Jack Horowitz, a successful screenwriter who has given up Hollywood, fame and fortune to take up full-time residence in a Catskills-like resort area. He writes for the local paper and lives the low-key life of an exurban squire with his beautiful Irish Catholic wife, Flannery (Christina Haag), and their daughter.

The play opens in the not-too-distant future, as Jack station-surfs on a radio in the local community center. Every number he hits produces a different fundamentalist Christian exhortation.

By the time Jack is joined by friend Danny (Stephen Singer in a ridiculous Harpo Marx wig), another screenwriter, he’s already wondering what’s happened to all the Jews. They seem to have disappeared, even though it’s a time when, we’re informed, Israel has apparently relocated to Miami Beach. A Sally Bowles type (Penny Balfour), accompanied by two black-garbed men, struts across the room “Cabaret”-style singing “Alabama Song” from “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” and commenting on the size of Jack’s nose.

Things get even darker after the intermission, when Jack and Danny have to travel to the nearby town of Grunwald. The German name is a giveaway, and the train they take turns out to be a cattle car. Friedman’s upbeat resolution of these matters challenges logic, but that’s not really his point.

Jack, a lapsed Jew, struggles with guilt over his marriage outside the faith and its consequences for their daughter. That’s the real occasion for all this psychic squirming — a discomfiture familiar to anyone in a similar situation.

The cattle car scene, in which a woman (Judith Granite) mocksJack’s secularism, may impress some as going too far (and an unnecessary audience plant drives the point home). But it undoubtedly strikes a chord in those of us for whom the annual appearance of a Christmas tree in the living room provokes an existential crisis.

“Have You Spoken” pushes plenty of buttons and flirts nervously with tastelessness. If only Michael Rudman’s pallid production had the courage of Friedman’s paranoid conception, this might have been an electrifying evening. Instead, the play merely leaves a bad taste instead of the gut-wrench clearly intended. Indeed, if anything gives offense here, it is American Jewish Theater artistic director Stanley Brechner’s assertion, in a program insert, that intermarriage by American Jewish men is accomplishing “what the Nazis and their predecessors could not achieve”– an outrageous statement that trivializes the slaughter of six million European Jews, not to mention the funny-sad torment of the Jack Horowitzes of the world.

At any rate, the play needs a Steven Berkoff at the helm, someone willing to take this over-the-edge material all the way. As it is, especially within the physical limitations of this difficult grotto space, the homely production seems tamped down. Nevertheless, the performances are good across the board, and even better in the case of Pine, comfortable in uneasy Jack’s skin, and Haag, who imbues an underwritten role with resonance. The play deserves a better title, a different director and another outing.

Have You Spoken to Any Jews Lately?

(American Jewish Theater, New York, 150 seats, $ 30 top)

Production

An American Jewish Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Bruce Jay Friedman. Directed by Michael Rudman.

Creative

Sets, James Wolk; costumes, Jennifer Di Figlia; lighting, Deborah Constantine; sound, Bruce Ellman; piano, Mat Eisenstein; artistic director, Stanley Brechner. Opened, reviewed Jan. 23, 1995. Running time: 1 Hour, 35 min.

Cast

Jack Horowitz ... Larry Pine Danny ... Stephen Singer Margaret/Tennis player/ Cabaret singer ... Penny Balfour Flannery O'Halloran ... Christina Haag Mrs. Goldman ... Judith Granite
With: Richard M. Davidson, Brennan Brown, Gene Canfield. Bruce Jay Friedman made his reputation as a hip comic playwright with "Scuba Duba" (1967) and "Steambath" (1970), as a novelist and, for the last couple of decades, as the author of the screenplays for "Splash" and "Stir Crazy," among other scripts. He hasn't been seen in these parts for a long time, but with "Have You Spoken to Any Jews Lately?" he returns, and he's armed for bear. A poster in the entryway to the tiny American Jewish Theater describes the play as "an hallucination," but black comedy is closer to the mark.
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