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Three by Mankowitz


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National Jewish Theater

at Mayer Kaplan JCC

The National Jewish Theater has completed its first season. It produced only three plays, so perhaps it is not fair to draw conclusions about the work, but a pattern seems to have emerged, and it's disappointing.

Now, I'm not Jewish, so maybe I have more chutzpah than insight when it comes to making this judgment, but I don't think the NJT has been presenting plays that explore "the contemporary Jewish experience," as the mission statement puts it. In its premiere season, the NJT has presented plays that are sentimental, maudlin and, at times, downright predictable.

First there was A Shayna Maidel. This was the story of two sisters -- one spent the war years in Poland, narrowly escaping the Holocaust, and one escaped to the United States with her father years before the Nazi invasion. The plot provided the opportunity to explore some interesting questions: How would two women who have experienced anti-Semitism in such vastly different degrees respond to their Jewish heritage? Can a product of frivolous American affluence ever understand the trauma inflicted by the Holocaust? Can a victim of that trauma ever fit into frivolous American society?

Although the playwright, Barbara Lebow, nodded politely to such questions, A Shayna Maidel was little more than a domestic melodrama about an overbearing father and the awkward reunion of two shy sisters.

Then came Green Fields, an unabashed glorification of simple Jewish peasant farmers. It was kind of interesting as an example of Yiddish theater, but not very relevant to issues facing Jews today.

Now there's Three by Mankowitz, a disparate collection of short pieces by the prolific Wolf Mankowitz, a British Jew who lives in Ireland. While the production is a painless introduction to a seldom-produced playwright, the plays themselves tend to be either sentimental or silly.

How feeble this all seems compared to the Haifa Municipal Theatre. The two plays performed in Chicago last summer by that company were overpowering, even though they were performed in Hebrew, with translations provided through earphones.

Ghetto, a potentially sentimental story about a theater group that operated in the Vilnius ghetto, turned out to be a bold examination of several daunting issues, including the role of the Jewish police in the ghetto, the struggle of Jews to retain humanity in the face of ruthless persecution, and the peculiar ambivalence of a Nazi officer who seemed sympathetic to Jewish culture even as he destroyed Jews. This description may make the play sound rather pedantic, but it was remarkably potent and engrossing. So was Soul of a Jew, which revolved around the problem of Jewish self-hatred, as embodied by Otto Weininger, a 19th-century Viennese philosopher who committed suicide in 1903, at the age of 23.

Compared to such work, the NJT plays seem precious and quaint. The three one-acts by Mankowitz, while dissimilar to each other, still don't break out of this pattern.

The opener, The Irish Hebrew Lesson, is set amidst "the troubles" in Cork, Ireland, in 1921. An old Jewish man, played by George Wilson, is up late, studying in the makeshift synagogue he maintains on the top floor of his house. He is interrupted by a gun-wielding young Irish freedom fighter (Tom Benich), who is fleeing the British police. Of course, the two men are as different as can be: the Jew is old, witty, contemplative, and patient; the young Irish rebel is impulsive, angry, and unbearably serious.

Yet the two are drawn together by their similarities: both are aliens in their own country, both have suffered persecution, and both are defending a threatened cultural inheritance. It's a sweet story with a nice ecumenical flavor to it, but the "we're-in-this-together" tone of the piece seemed a little corny to me.

The Bespoke Overcoat is a deft adaptation of Gogol's short story about a poor man named Fender who is waiting eagerly for a custom-made coat that a tailor friend has promised to make for him. Fender is so excited about getting a new coat that even when he dies, he continues to yammer on about it, causing his cohorts in the afterlife to send him back to earth to fetch one. Fredric Stone is very endearing as Fender, and Charles Lutz plays the tippling tailor like some good-natured pirate, complete with a patch over his eye, so the play is pleasant enough to watch, which seems to be all Mankowitz intended it to be.

It Should Happen to a Dog transforms the biblical story of Jonah and the whale into a vaudeville sketch. Maybe this type of humor goes over well in England, but even Alan Novak's considerable comic skills can't squeeze much laughter out of it.

So what does that give us? A melodrama, a vignette, and a comic skit that looks like the work of a church group enrolled in a Second City improv class. An eclectic assortment, to be sure, but one that doesn't have much to say about the contemporary Jewish experience.

Whether this pattern of work was deliberate or accidental doesn't matter much anymore, I suppose. Stanley Brechner, the artistic director of the NJT, has stepped down, and has been replaced by Sheldon Patinkin, chairman of the Columbia College theater/music department. Patinkin's associate will be Arnold Aprill, a young director distinguished for his stage adaptations of novels and short stories. With their selection of works for next season, they already have put the NJT on a different course: it includes Grownups, by cartoonist Jules Feiffer; The Dybbuk, which will be the first Chicago production in 35 years of this famous tale of demonic possession and mass hysteria; A Generation Later, adaptations by Aprill of short stories by Jewish writers; and Minnie's Boys, a musical comedy about the Marx brothers and their mother.

So far, the season is just a promise, but the mere promise of such a season is more exciting than anything seen at the NJT so far.

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