Following its 1959-60 Broadway success and a 1962 movie, the gentle cross-cultural comedy “A Majority of One” was consigned to the community theater circuit, if produced at all. West Coast Jewish Theater’s amiable if flawed revival reveals a much worthier vehicle than the spotty performance history might indicate. In its way, Leonard Spigelgass’ period piece about the burgeoning friendship between a Jewish-American widow and a Japanese industrialist says more about the folly of racial prejudice than an entire election year’s worth of pontificating.
Play and lead role were tailor-made for the beloved Gertrude Berg, who copped a Tony as Brooklyn-based homebody Bertha Jacoby, reluctantly tagging along when daughter and diplomat son-in-law are posted to Tokyo. The bitter memory of a son killed in the Pacific during the war gives way to an embracing of an alien culture, as Zen Buddhist tenets prove most complementary to Yiddishkeit.
But Spigelgass took his comic vehicle onto dangerous terrain in proposing a romance between Bertha and the lonely widower Asano. (Only two years earlier, Red Buttons and Miyoshi Umeki were driven to seppuku in “Sayonara,” and they were married.) To ease the shock for Westerners, Asano was assigned to such distinguished Nipponese stars as Cedric Hardwicke (in Gotham) and Alec Guinness (on film). But now that “yellowface” is no longer a viable alternative, a revisit with greater authenticity is long overdue.
Veteran character actor Sab Shimono is in fact the most notable reason to see the current revival. Asano’s reserve runs deep — he, too, bears WWII scars, and a spouse’s loss — and Shimono movingly charts the path by which Bertha’s ingenuous warmth and plain speaking spur his personal, emotional thaw. (The authenticity on his side of the East/West chasm is enhanced by charming bits of Japanese dialogue, song and ritual from Shimono and the exquisite Fay Kato and Tomo Kawaguchi.)
On the other side, delightful ’60s ingenue Paula Prentiss seems uncomfortable much of the time as Bertha, overdoing the shrugs and arm gestures while anticipating reactions to lines yet unspoken. But her audience good will is akin to Berg’s (“I love her!”; “Oy, she’s so skinny” goes the matinee crowd patter), and when it comes time to confront her liberal daughter and son-in-law (Anya Profumo, Ross Benjamin) with their hypocrisy in opposing her friendship with Asano, she’s unmannered and fine.
Helmer Salome Jens’ blocking sometimes verges on the inept, with actors continually upstaging each other while standing, sitting and moving for no reason. There’s mystery in the decision to mime some props but not others, and perhaps out of nervousness over caricaturing a “wily houseboy,” no one has figured out how much comedy to mine from scheming valet Eddie (Edison Park is marvelously cool and interesting nevertheless).
But Profumo and Benjamin are a delight, finding unexpected layers in the give-and-take between an ambitious young man and a wife with loyalties torn between her mother and her husband. (Benjamin is such a dead ringer for dad Richard, it’s spooky.)
Tech credits are superior in the comfy Pico Playhouse. Understandably, Victoria Bellocq’s sets and Kent Inasy’s lights find the most inspiration and beauty in Mr. Asano’s spare, elegant digs, where jovial, unpretentious Mrs. Jacoby barges in to prove Kipling wrong: Sure, East is East and West is West, but where kindred souls encounter each other, the twain can meet.