The complicated nature of parental love is examined across several generations in this modest but likable new play at Manhattan Theater Club. Daniel Goldfarb gives us two separate snapshots of a Jewish family settled in Toronto, the first dating from 1961, the second taking place four decades on, and in a far-flung location, rural China.
The complicated nature of parental love is examined across several generations in this modest but likable new play at Manhattan Theater Club. Daniel Goldfarb gives us two separate snapshots of a Jewish family settled in Toronto, the first dating from 1961, the second taking place four decades on, and in a far-flung location, rural China. The two halves of the play are linked both by theme and by name. Sarah Goldberg is a tough-skinned immigrant from Russia desperate to stop her son from marrying beneath him in act one. The same name is given to an ailing Chinese adoptee in act two.
Goldfarb flirts with stereotype in depicting the first Sarah Goldberg, played by J. Smith-Cameron, a skilled actress stuck in an ill-fitting role here. Bemoaning the disastrous arrival of cherry strudel when she was expecting blueberry buns, she evinces a suspiciously natural way with a one-liner. “No doubt there is trouble when Polish person is thinking ahead,” Sarah scoffs at the pastry miscreant, Vincent (an amusingly deadpan Richard Masur), her maid and general factotum, who happens also to be a cross-dressing middle-aged man.
Sarah’s mild acceptance of this eccentricity rather disarms the young visitor for whom the treats have been procured: her son’s fiancee, Rochelle (Lori Prince). But Sarah won’t be distracted from her cause, which is dissuading the young woman from going through with the marriage.
Blunt and little inclined to niceties, she tells Rochelle that Artie (Andrew Katz) deserves better, hinting that Rochelle’s sad family history — recently deceased father, mother struggling to hold onto the house — would be a blot on her own.
But Vincent, idling nearby with his feather duster, refuses to let Sarah’s insecurities about her own place in the world poison her son’s life. He steps in on the side of the young lovers and reveals a secret shame that Sarah has kept hidden from even her family.
The outcome of this confrontation becomes clear in act two, set in a Holiday Inn near the Great Wall, rendered in aptly generic style by set designer James Noone. Artie, now played by Masur, is the father of 39-year-old Jeannie (Smith-Cameron), a single woman anxiously preparing to adopt a Chinese orphan.
When it becomes clear that Jeannie’s child has some serious physical problems, probably due to malnutrition, Artie gently tries to suggest that maybe Jeannie is getting in above her head. Her newly aroused maternal instincts rise to the challenge, and another intergenerational family conflict erupts.
Modestly amusing, mildly sentimental, Goldfarb’s play is directed with becoming simplicity by Mark Nelson. The tendency toward caricature that slightly mars the depiction of Sarah in act one recurs in act two, in the form of a somewhat broadly drawn couple sniping at each other mechanically. But Goldfarb does better by most of his characters, writing natural, understated dialogue that gently draws out the play’s themes.
The playwright is a sensitive observer of the conflicting responsibilities of parenthood, and the way emotional burdens from childhood play out in adult lives. It’s a minor piece of work — it almost feels like two halves of a play rather than a whole one — but it qualifies as a small blessing for Manhattan Theater Club, which could sorely use blessings of any size this year.