The first clue that all is not well in Jeremiah Ginsberg’s new musical lies at the back of the program, under the heading “Producer’s Statement.” “Participation in this production by Actors and Staff does not imply agreement with its views,” the disclaimer goes, and it’s a good thing. Between its caricatures of Arabs and Italians and its tinfoil-hat philosophy, “The Time of Mendel’s Trouble” is both a worrying reading on the sanity barometer and an embarrassingly problematic musical.
The chief problem with “Trouble” — and the thing that makes it worth observing — is a theological theory called Premillennial Dispensationalism (rhymes with “sensationalism”) that has overtaken parts of conservative Christianity and produced the wildly popular “Left Behind” books, among many others. Michael Chabon takes a stab at addressing this weirdness and its adherents in his sci-fi novel “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” which is being filmed by the Coen brothers, so expect to hear more about it soon.
Briefly, Ginsberg takes New Testament prophecies very literally and, after parsing parts of them with recent history (he’s written a thick book on the topic), makes some very specific predictions about the future and the second coming of Christ.
In the show, Mendel Moskowitz (Tom Richter) and Murray Schwartz (Chris Reber) are the requisite two prophets (Revelation 11:3) chosen by God. Their mission? To lead all the Jews back to their God-given homeland, where they will convert to Christianity, destroy the most sacred Muslim site on Earth (the Dome of the Rock) and rebuild Solomon’s temple on its ruins, bringing about the end of the world. Almost immediately after being called to this glorious service by a burning bush, Mendel and Murray save a synagogue from suicide bombers (in Brooklyn, no less) and, in the midst of being thanked, demand that everyone within earshot convert to Christianity.
We are soon introduced to David Demato as pope surrogate Guiseppe Gepetto Falsetto, Josh Lamon as Akbar Duhnutjob and David Everett as Sheik-Abu (sic) Ali-Goniff, who all offer characterizations exactly as sensitive as the names suggest.
At intermission, these charming characters clear the room like a bad smell, and the few returning patrons are rewarded for their pains with lines like “I’m a Zionist — so is God! He invented it!”
It would be easy to gripe about the score (too many songs by about six), the choreography and the portrayal of Hillary Clinton, a Christian, as the Whore of Babylon to Vladimir Putin’s Antichrist. What’s more astonishing, though, is the presence of actual financing on this show. The lighting package is spectacular, there’s a live musician, and several of the large cast have Broadway credits, though it doesn’t look like money can buy their loyalty.
One wonders: Is this a new movement in the theater, a dirty bomb in the culture wars? Or is it just one guy who managed to save enough money to realize his dream in a nice off-off theater? It might be the former, but we’re praying otherwise.