This isn’t your bubbe’s Yiddish theater. Sholem Asch’s 1917 hit “Motke Ganev,” now premiering in Caraid O’Brien’s English translation as “Motke Thief,” follows a grasping, hotheaded young man’s career, from petty thief to carny to pimp, in Warsaw’s criminal underworld. It features violence, depravity, salty language (not only in Yiddish), and this creative insult, from one dolled-up whore to another: “You’re just a stupid bagel hole.” Director Aaron Beall’s fringey production is rough around the edges, and it fails to explicate or explore the play’s socioeconomic backdrop. But there’s authentic fascination in the way this gangster potboiler mixes its ingredients, plus a few scenes of genuine heat.
The prologue, a clever sketch awkwardly executed here, shows young Motke’s mother (Elka Rodriguez) shielding the boy from the shtetl’s retribution for his thievery, only to have her fellow Jews rally to her defense when a non-Jewish cop (Corey Carthew) tries to intervene. The town’s disapproval is mild, though, compared to the malevolence of Motke’s father (Mark Greenfield), an ogre in an eyepatch who forces Mama to send their son packing. Says Motke (Gurjant Singh) with vague menace: “I’ll give it back to them.” He’s not talking about stolen property.
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Indeed, an outsider’s rage simmers throughout the play and occasionally boils over, though the social hierarchy of this pre-Soviet setting remains hazy. At one point, a pair of Jewish carnies lure a local bourgeois (Darius Stone) to the dressing room of a buxom tightrope walker (writer O’Brien), then rob, humiliate, and beat him with the send-off: “This is payback for all the Jews!”
For his part, the dark-skinned and lower-class adult Motke (Jonathan Butler) seethes against his status, first as a circus lackey, then as a dandified pimp (in a garish costume, by Uta Bekaia, that makes him look like an over-dressed jockey). Muscled and short-tempered, he’s not afraid to bust heads when push comes to shove — and heaven forbid you insult his mother. But it turns out that what he really wants is a respectable Jewish wife, represented by a cafe owner’s daughter, Hanala (Maurren Sebastian).
This urge to merge leads to one of the play’s more inspired, absurd arguments, in which Motke tries to ask Hanala’s father, Melach (Bern Cohen), for her hand. “You don’t want me to?” Motke asks defensively. “I don’t know yet what I don’t want!” replies the studiously non-committal Melach. This is one instance where Asch’s signature use of repetition, and Beall’s staging, crescendos to a nice payoff. Elsewhere this tic can be numbingly redundant: Characters announce plans, plead cases, and argue points, over and over, often verbatim.
With a few exceptions, Beall’s actors don’t give these reprises the coaxing, wheedling edge that would make them build. O’Brien, who delivers her lines in a kind of Brooklynese deadpan, evinces a marvelously complacent cynicism, and Cohen’s nervy patriarch is a standout. Butler’s title performance has its moments, particularly in a final, intimate scene with his fiancee, expertly underplayed by Sebastian. But thesp’s main emotional color is impacted psychic pain, channeled into aggression; there’s no roguish joy in his conquests, no shading in his shame.
He does, however, show an exuberant excess of mother love, a classic Yiddish-theater trope that survives even this decadent setting in all its Freudian glory. In a speech of Pinter-esque economy (naturally repeated in theme-and-variation fashion), Motke proposes to Hanala thus: “Do you want to? I want to. Hear me out. I love you. Like my mother.” And when he finally introduces Mom to Hanala, Motke puts an arm around each and says, without irony, “My two mamas!” That’s something you don’t see every day.