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Morning Star

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Mizlansky/Zilinsky or Schmucks

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

By Adam Langer

As the Steppenwolf Theatre Company settles into middle age, with generous corporate sponsorship provided by Sara Lee, Sprint, and Deloitte & Touche Consulting Group, it would be foolish to expect the brash, adventurous spirit of its youth. After all, a controversial play might send the tuxedoed members of the gala benefit audience scurrying across the street to the Royal George. So it comes as little surprise that the company (which is considering such chestnuts as Hedda Gabler, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's The Royal Family for its next season) is now lobbing two softballs right down the middle of the subscriber base. Apparently aiming for the audience that finds the Goodman and Northlight too avant-garde, Steppenwolf is serving up a revival of Sylvia Regan's by-the-numbers Jewish family saga Morning Star and, in the Studio Theatre, Jon Robin Baitz's hackneyed Hollywood satire Mizlansky/Zilinsky or Schmucks.

In both cases, the stories behind the plays are considerably more engaging than the plays themselves. The 91-year-old Regan, who recently finished her first novel, was a childhood friend of Clifford Odets, the playwright whose work Regan's most closely resembles. The 1940 Broadway premiere of Morning Star, partly inspired by a tragic 1911 factory fire that killed over a hundred New York seamstresses, featured the legendary Yiddish actress Molly Picon and a very young Sidney Lumet as a boy about to be bar mitzvahed. Baitz's Mizlansky/Zilinsky or Schmucks, which treats Jewish issues from a very different perspective, is an early comic work by the talented author of the dramas The Substance of Fire, A Fair Country, and Three Hotels; after recently undergoing open heart surgery, he reportedly reworked the play considerably.

Steppenwolf claims in the program that this is the play's first professional production in 59 years. And Morning Star has been neglected, though it's not exactly unknown. It's appeared in several play anthologies (director Frank Galati happened upon it in one called Awake and Singing), it's been performed in various community and university productions over the years, and the professional Colony Studio Theatre in LA performed the play in its 1997-'98 season. A well-crafted work, Morning Star has several memorable characters and a few poetic passages, but even when it was written it was hardly ahead of its time, and if it hasn't been performed much lately, it might well be because the years have not been particularly kind to it.

Telling the story of New York's Felderman family from 1910 to 1931, this classic family drama could serve as a companion piece to much of Odets's work or as a prequel to Neil Simon's nostalgic trio of New York memory plays. In her Lower East Side flat, the strong, sensitive matriarch Becky Felderman oversees the struggles of her young son Hymie and her three daughters: Esther, whose fairy-tale romance with an idealistic young teacher, Harry Engel, is destined to end in tragedy; Fanny, a brassy would-be showgirl who takes up with a George M. Cohan-esque songwriting cad; and Sadie, a bitter, jealous, snappish yet vulnerable woman with hopes of striking it rich in business. Meanwhile Becky fends off the advances of her boarder Aaron Greenspan, who begins the play as a Bolshevik and ends as a capitalist.

With the exception of the shocking end of the first act, when a blaze at a nearby factory lays waste the optimism of this nobly struggling immigrant family, there are few detours from the typical American melodrama. Regan's is the sort of play in which the greatest tragedies occur on the eve of a wedding shortly after someone says, "We know only good can come to us here," in which a character goes into labor at precisely the moment that World War I ends, in which characters make such self-consciously facile pronouncements as "Movies are a novelty--there's no future in them," and in which a Bolshevik sympathizer's present to a bar mitzvah boy is of course a copy of Das Kapital. In the play's improbable final scene, one couple breaks up, one couple reconciles, another couple gets engaged, and a character announces that he has one year to live--all on the eve of a bar mitzvah. As my West Rogers Park family would say, "Oy, please."

Not surprisingly, Galati's production looks great. Longtime Woody Allen collaborator and Tony winner Santo Loquasto has provided the absolute best set and costumes money can buy: every element of the design, from the beautiful wood furnishings to the stunningly rendered backdrop of a brick apartment building, looks and feels like something out of Radio Days. Galati has choreographed the hubbub onstage with remarkable grace.

The performances he coaxes from his cast, however, are not quite what one would expect considering the extravagant production values. Several of the actors do have excellent moments, especially Paul Adelstein, who ages brilliantly as the high-minded schoolteacher Engel, and Shannon Cochran, whose performance as Becky Felderman--Regan's most effectively written character--is a model of subtlety. But many of the actors often perform at an emotional level about two notches beyond believability, failing to give their often stereotypical characters any nuance. As the irrepressible Fanny, Melanie Moore is every bit as shrill and irritating as Regan has written her, and David New as the shallow songwriter gives a performance as cliched as his character. As Sadie, Jenny Bacon teeters between beautifully rendered heartbreak and unmodulated outbursts that push the credibility envelope. Worse is the normally reliable Roderick Peeples as Greenspan's Bolshevik friend, Benjamin Brownstein: the character's biography suggests eastern Europe, but Peeples's accent indicates a place midway between London and Dublin. Galati also wastes the talented Rick Snyder, seen too briefly as Engel's father, and the versatile Ora Jones, who in her Steppenwolf debut is reduced to a cameo as the Feldermans' maid, Pansy, who tells Becky, "You sure are powerful educated."

Whatever Morning Star may lack in subtlety, it's light-years beyond Jon Robin Baitz's Mizlansky/Zilinsky or Schmucks, which brings precious little to the all-too-familiar genre of Hollywood satire. Of the many works in this tradition, David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow features the best dialogue; Arthur Kopit's The Road to Nirvana is the most outrageous; S.J. Perlman's The Beauty Part, the wackiest and most prescient; Robert Altman and Michael Tolkin's The Player, the most accurate; Christopher Guest's The Big Picture, the funniest; and Rick Cleveland's recent Danny Bouncing, the most creative at using full frontal nudity. Of the bunch, Baitz's script is probably the dullest. Originally written in 1984 as a short one-act, the work is now a two-act morality play about Hollywood producers who move into the equally sleazy business of tax shelters. But long before the first act is over, the playwright has said about all he has to say on the subject of Hollywood superficiality and soullessness.

The play centers around Davis Mizlansky (Francis Guinan, in a breathless, over-the-top performance that's far too conscious of the character's phoniness), who's seeking investors for a tax-shelter enterprise that involves recordings of Bible stories. Hiding out from the IRS, Mizlansky lures the anti-Semitic high-rolling Oklahoman Horton DeVries (Michael Canavan in a chilling performance that suggests David Duke) into his scheme. To close the deal, Mizlansky tries to enlist the aid of his old partner Sam Zilinsky (a somewhat enervated Ross Lehman) and a down-on-his-luck TV actor, Lionel Hart (David Alan Novak in a nice turn).

Director Amy Morton stages the play's high jinks as if this were raucous comedy, but the laughs are few and far between, most of them cheap yuks at such easy targets as Hollywood eating habits (Mizlansky is partial to chopped Chinese chicken tostadas), ridiculous movie projects (one character talks up Arnold Schwarzenegger for a new adaptation of The Golem), bad regional theater (Lionel has won acclaim for his portrayal of Prospero in Oregon's "Bardathon"), and porn movie titles (Mizlansky suggests "The Vacuum in the Tuna"). Some of the best moments belong to Andy Rothenberg as Mizlansky's bitchy houseboy, who consistently undermines his boss's nefarious schemes.

But between the occasionally witty moments and screwball satire are long passages of verbose, moralistic dialogue pointing up the Faustian nature of Hollywood bargains. When DeVries uncorks an anti-Semitic remark at the end of the second act, firing into gear the play's moral conflict, we can feel the author striving for an intellectual gravity this flimsy, overwritten satire hasn't earned. Comedy may not be Baitz's strong point, especially considering the excellence of his dramas The Substance of Fire and A Fair Country.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.

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