That genre was once an important part of the arts community in New York and other places where there was a significant population of Yiddish-speaking immigrants. Jacob is touring the provinces in 1935, by which time, the Yiddish Theatre is in decline. When we meet him, he is in Chicago performing with his wife, Leah.
While I was watching, I started thinking about the movie, The Prestige (2006), which I like a lot, and not just because it has hot guys (Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale) as the leads, and that they are supported by “Hot Guy Emeritus,” Michael Caine as “Cutter,” a sort of combination mentor and dogsbody to Jackman’s magician, Angier. Cutter explains that there are three parts or “acts” to a magic trick: The “pledge,” a contract with the audience that they’ll see something extraordinary; “the turn,” wherein the body of the illusion takes place; and “the prestige,” the climax of the experience. In relating this schematic to Jacob and Jack, I’d say the first two parts of the contract are mostly upheld, but things fall apart at the last.
The pledge is the plot, which is complicated but not hard to follow. Jack Shore (Bobby Miller) and his actress wife, Lisa (Kari Ely), are in Chicago to do a staged reading in honor of his grandfather, Jacob, at the theatre where he gave his last performance during that 1935 tour. They have come at the behest of Jack’s mother (Esther played by Donna Weinsting) and are accompanied by Jack’s manager, Ted (Terry Meddows). The third reader is Robin (Julie Layton) and her youth and beauty make her catnip to Jack whose roving eye infuriates his wife. Ted tries to keep him in line, but he can’t seem to do much about Jack’s behavior, and Lisa fears they’re headed for divorce.
Jack meets Don (Justin Ivan Brown), the stage manager, when he arrives at the theatre. Don is so stereotypically gay that he could be a piñata, and a lot of jokes are mined from his mincing and prancing. He doesn’t know who “Jack Shore” is until Jack demonstrates his most famous role: The Flying Carpet Guy, which he’s been doing in commercials for many years. (And Miller does a couple of bars of pretty good Sinatra too.) Then Don goes all nelly fangirl and wants autographs and pictures.
Meanwhile, Robin is in the next room trying to cope with her nervousness about being onstage, a condition which will humorously attack Jack soon. Robin has some experience, reveres actors and the theatre, and she got this job the old-fashioned way: through her aunt, another member of the committee headed by Jack’s mother, which is sponsoring this event. She provides a strong moment in the play when she explains the influence Yiddish Theatre had on contemporary American performance style from Jacob Adler down to Marlon Brando.
This early part of the play has a lot of funny moments, and sets up the oddest running joke I’ve heard: The one-time Yiddish Theatre actor who made good in Hollywood, Paul Muni, is mentioned constantly once we’ve gone back in time, facilitated by a clever bit of a magic trick when Jack dresses up at Jacob. Jack’s mother’s reaction thrusts us into the original Jacob’s dressing room as he is preparing to go on. He is a man who is large of voice, ego, and presumably talent. He possesses the infidelity DNA passed on to Jack, as he is more concerned with hitting on the lovely Rachel, the ingénue he has “discovered” than anything else. However, there is a hint of desperation in his flirtation that Jack doesn’t seem to have. The characters of 1935 are played by the same actors who appear in 2012. Miller and Ely’s characters (now Leah) are still married actors and Layton is Rachel, but Weinsting is now Rachel’s mother, Meddows is the elderly manager of the dying theatre, and Brown is Moishe (soon to be Mickey) who plans to drive out to Hollywood and try his luck there (after all, it worked for Paul Muni) as soon as this gig is over.
There are comic moments to be found in both 1935 and 2012: Jack’s improvisation on the first commercial actor (Thespis stepping out to do a pitch for “Dionysan Wine”) done to impress Robin and Hannah’s late-in-life interest in show-biz is played broadly and strictly for laughs in the “Jacob” part. Weinsting almost channels Lucille Ball here. Miller and Ely work comfortably together, as usual, and Meddows plays against type as Miller’s childhood friend and adult equal. As I so often do, I must single Meddows out. He is always remarkable, no matter the material.
And the material, overall, isn’t very good. We do laugh during the first hour, though many of the jokes are predictable and some are just old. But playwright James Sherman takes the show beyond comedy and into full out farce. Robert Mark Morgan’s set is configured as a proscenium, and consists of three side-by-side dressing rooms with connecting doors. As always, in farce, the slamming in and out of these doors in choreographed bits is a big part of the humor, except there were mistakes with the doors, most egregiously, leaving them open a couple of times, so what is said could easily be heard in the next room. Those little oversights made the show feel under-rehearsed. Accents are bothersome at times too. I know Miller can do a fine Yiddish accent—he proved that in Awake and Sing—but here he sounds like Bela Lugosi. I will allow for the possibility that it is intentional though, since Jacob is, at least in his own mind, larger than life. Weinsting also has a problem with her dialect for the Hannah character. She sounds vaguely Scandinavian, more Ingrid Bergman than Gertrude Berg. This isn’t a huge issue, but I found it distracting.
Then there is the “prestige,” and, unfortunately, the promise of the pledge is far from fulfilled. There is a deus ex machina in the form of an unlikely story that wasn’t supposed to be told, but OOPS!, it was, and it sets everything right and the play just quits. What Sherman does do cleverly is make the past and present meld, but the way he does it is a cheat. I did laugh, I had some fun, but in the end, I felt let down by an abrupt switch from schtick to schmaltz. The show looks good, especially Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes for both eras. I did think the lights were a bit dim, though that might have been more a reflection of the appropriately drab gray wallpaper in the “dressing rooms.”
Please don’t let my observations stop you from making up your own mind, however. Most of the audience had a fine time, and some even stood to applaud. This is the cream of the crop of St. Louis actors directed by the comedy veteran Edward Coffield, still I felt they were all wasted on what seems a hastily written piece that is, in the end, all hat and no rabbit.