Nine Contemporary Jewish Plays
Edited by Ellen Schiff and Michael Posnick
Foreword by Theodore Bikel
University of Texas Press, 587 pages, $24.95.
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Published plays — especially those in anthologies — tend to be dismissed by the casual browser as specialty items, of interest only to students of theater history or to actors in search of audition material. Ellen Schiff and Michael Posnick clearly had something else in mind when they compiled their lively new collection, “Nine Contemporary Jewish Plays.” Mainstream readers are encouraged to visit the drama bookshelf to locate this intelligent, probing collection filled with vivid examples of how dramatic literature can humanize moral and social dilemmas by embodying them in the personal irritations and intimacies of daily life.
Schiff and Posnick have chosen well, covering territory as diverse as the Argentine white slave trade, the plight of the refuseniks in the Soviet Union, and the longstanding friendship between Marc Chagall and Yiddish theater legend Solomon Mikhoels. While all the pieces are well crafted and insightful, some are so heavily dependent on choreography and stage effects that they fall a bit flat on the page. Other entries read like short stories, as absorbing in book form as they likely are in performance. Without critiquing all nine of the pieces, suffice to say that the more verbal and less visually driven pieces tend to be the most readable.
Not surprisingly, two of the standouts are by Jeffrey Sweet and Donald Margulies, who are familiar to American audiences from their Broadway and off-Broadway successes. Sweet’s “The Action Against Sol Schumann” examines one of the perpetually nagging questions of the Holocaust and its aftermath. The time is 1985, and outspoken Aaron Schumann flies to Bitburg, Germany, to protest Ronald Reagan’s visit to a cemetery full of German soldiers. As the son of a Holocaust survivor, Aaron cannot countenance the president’s portrayal of Germans as victims. Aaron’s moral absolutes are tested, however, when another survivor identifies his father, Sol, as a former kapo. Desperate to put together a defense, Aaron and his brother, Michael, search far and wide. If they can find an eyewitness, they may be able to substantiate their claim that their papa had little choice and even used his position to help other Jews. Finally the two brothers locate an elderly survivor who remembers Sol, but not in the way they’d hoped. Sweet’s dialogue brilliantly mingles the universal and the painfully personal, and the plot moves along with the brisk pace of a good mystery. Unfortunately the ending feels far too convenient: Aaron, an inner-city schoolteacher, is killed when he tries to break up a knife fight. Thus Sweet lets his protagonist, and the audience, off the hook too easily. A more fitting resolution would have shown Aaron struggling to maintain his sanity as he reconciles the cherished memory of a loving father with the terrifying image of a willing collaborator in his own people’s destruction.
A different kind of conundrum animates Margulies’s “God of Vengeance.” Although the play is adapted from a work by Sholem Asch, Margulies’s clash of dialects vibrates with the influences of Elmer Rice and Clifford Odets. In the tenements of New York City’ s Lower East Side, the 1920s roar with a decidedly Yiddish inflection. Jack Chapman, aka Yankel Tshaptshovitsh, runs a prosperous bordello. One flight up, he tries to maintain a kosher home and to keep his beloved daughter, Rivkele, pure and innocent. When he buys a Torah scroll for Rivkele’s dowry, he finds himself confronting a God whose dictates he has ignored all these years. Alternately frightening and hilarious, his ferocious outbursts are balanced by lyrical scenes of same-sex intimacy. At 17, Rivkele can no longer be tied down. Defying her father’s admonitions, she sneaks downstairs to the brothel. Here, Manke, a prostitute suffering from a different kind of loneliness, offers Rivkele the full embrace she cannot find anywhere else.
Lesser known but equally talented, Marilyn Clayton Felt brings a Shavian intensity to her penetrating study of the Middle East peace struggle. Inspired by true events, “Asher’s Command” concerns a friendship between Arab car mechanic Samir and young Israeli draftee Asher. When Asher’s car breaks down in the occupied territories, Samir is happy to help and shows no animosity toward the young soldier. The problem turns out to be a potato jammed into the tailpipe; hardly an act of ruthless terrorism, but certainly an omen of what’s to come. The friendship continues through the years, but is put to the test in the 1980s when Asher becomes commander of occupation forces. Though he truly believes he can make a difference from within, he receives little support from either side. Arabs suspect trickery behind the peaceful overtures, and Jewish hardliners see him as a traitor to his nation. Tensions erupt when a group of Israeli youths enjoy an outing in Nablus in defiance of regulations. Stones are thrown, shots are fired and Samir’s auto shop becomes an unintended battleground. As Asher is called on to enforce the law, he ends up on the opposite side of his longtime friend. Although a melodramatic subplot proves somewhat distracting, Felt’s well-crafted allegory provides a mature and unflinching portrayal of Israel’s continuing internal and external conflicts.
As for the more experimental pieces, the most affecting is Corey Fischer’s “See Under: Love,” a play within a play within a play adapted from a Hebrew novel by David Grossman. In America, young Neuman neglects his wife and son while speaking to the ghost of his grandfather, Herr Wasserman. Once a popular Polish author, Wasserman is now interned in a concentration camp. Here he’s commanded to be S.S. Officer Kurt Neigel’s personal Sheherazade. Each night he invents a new chapter of a surreal adventure story, which Neigel transcribes into letters to his wife. The Nazi is having trouble at home, as Frau Neigel no longer wishes to be touched by hands that stink of death. As the story deepens, Neigel’s conscience slowly awakens. When he truly encounters the horror of his actions he can no longer function, and takes his own life. Fischer skates on thin ice here, dangerously close to a relativistic worldview in which we’re all victims. But by the end of “See Under: Love,” Neigel’s crisis becomes less a moral acquittal than an existential song of lament. Evil, Fischer seems to say, consumes everything in its path, including what little claim to humanity its perpetrators may hope to make.
Unfortunately, only one of the nine plays — Jennifer Maisel’s touching “The Last Seder” — can really be called “contemporary.” Re-examining the past is a worthy task for any dramatist, but the inclusion of a few works that take place in today’s world (“Brooklyn Boy,” “Modern Orthodox,” “Jewtopia”) would have made this collection feel less like a history book and more like the up-to-date dispatch its name suggests.
Ethan Kanfer is a playwright and theater critic living in New York.