Carole Braverman’s “The Yiddish Trojan Women” was developed in New York by the Women’s Project & Prods., and produced in London last year to some acclaim. Set in the Reagan-Bush ’80s, it’s a contemporary drama that draws schematic but ultimately persuasive parallels with the Greek tragedy of the title — notably in the Cassandra-like portrait of an idealistic young Jewish woman movingly written and equally movingly played by Lori Wilner.
Wilner plays Abigail Brodsky, a tenacious labor organizer regarded with unvarnished contempt by her older sister Brenda (Marilyn Pasekoff), a hopelessly second-rate nightclub comedienne hellbent on success. They represent opposite moral poles; somewhere in the middle is their cousin Tess (Laura Esterman), a teacher of mythology who loves, and tries to help, both of them while trying to navigate some treacherous waters of her own.
Linking them is a grandmother, Devorah (Joanna Merlin), an oft-widowed survivor of the Polish pogroms at the turn of the century who went on to perform in the Yiddish theaters on Second Avenue and now is a living — not to say challenging — testament to survival skills.
With a mix of comedy and bitchiness, Braverman evokes the tensions among the three younger women, as Brenda recruits Tess to write material for her and Abigail tries to engage Tess in helping her to expose U.S. complicity in training Guatemalan death squads. At the same time, the lonely Tess takes up with Luke (Hugh O’Gorman), an unlikely lover, being illiterate, very much married, with a fourth child on the way — and probably antisemitic to boot.
Struggling to balance Abigail’s devotion to righting wrongs against Brenda’s crude selfishness, Tess emerges as the play’s fulcrum. Being essentially good-hearted but humanly flawed, she also provides a kind of entry into this world the play certainly demands. Nevertheless, it’s the martyred Abigail — like her familial counterpart, Devorah’s murdered sister-in-law, as well as the unyielding Cassandra — we won’t forget.
“The Yiddish Trojan Women” is unsettling because it shows how easily we can be seduced into behaving badly and in gross self-interest — and how quick we can be to label mad those who resist such temptation; Brenda goes so far as to buy the official line that her sister died by her own hand.
Unsettling as these issues are, Braverman tends to lock her characters into speeches and postures, and the preachiness can be irritating. A lighter touch from director Richard Sabellico might have alleviated some of the script’s portentousness without sacrificing the playwright’s seriousness of intent. Still , a very fine cast makes these characters linger in the memory, and their differing attitudes toward personal responsibility are genuinely disturbing.