Coming of age in post-Prohibition New York, coming to terms with one’s ethnic heritage and coming to an understanding with one’s father are the intertwined motifs of Herb Gardner’s “Conversations With My Father.” The serious subjects receive generally lightweight treatment more reminiscent of middle-period Neil Simon than of “The Joy Luck Club,” which it thematically resembles.
Casting Judd Hirsch as a cranky, middle-aged Jewish man is hardly a novelty, but his portrayal of such a character in “Conversations” won him a 1992 Tony. Hirsch reprises the role in the touring production, now at James A. Doolittle Theatre in Hollywood. Show features several other members of N.Y. cast, plus some actors and director Daniel Sullivan from original Seattle Rep production.
Story spans 40 years in life of family of Canal Street saloonkeeper Eddie Goldberg (Hirsch), narrated in flashback by younger son Charlie (James Sutorius).
Eddie — trying to escape childhood memories of pogroms in Odessa and current ethnic prejudice in U.S. — changes the family name to Ross. His wife (Gordana Rasovich) and sons Joey and Charlie are more committed to preserving their Jewish heritage, as is roomer Zaretsky (John Colicos), who harbors his own violent memories of Odessa.
The bar’s regulars include elderly couple Nick (William Biff McGuire) and Hannah (Gloria Dorson), and Irish bookmaker
Finney (Jake Dengel).
Though several scenes are nicely written and occasionally moving, “Conversations” has an overall superficiality that keeps it from being truly memorable.
For example, Nick’s fantasies that he is Santa Claus exist only for comic effect, and Hannah’s blindness serves no dramatic purpose.
Acting Wednesday night was a bit stiff in some quarters, but certainly up to the material.
Hirsch is play’s best-known actor and top-billed, but it could be argued that Sutorius — onstage for the entire play as he narrates and comments on the action — is the leading character. Both turn in fine perfs, though Hirsch does so in a persona he’s been honing for years.
Colicos is a delight as Zaretsky, and McGuire wins several laughs; neither Rashovich nor Dorson gets much time on stage.
A secondary storyline involving the sons’ growth is nicely done, with J.D. Daniels making an impression asyoung Charlie in faceoffs with Hirsch. Tony Walton’s handsome saloon set is evocative, and Jon Gottleib’s sound design is notable for its combination of disparate elements.