Brecht Point

In that brief spot, Chambers deftly evokes the American penchant for quick-fix solutions that can be bought off a shelf as well as the twisted system of campaign finance that has long hijacked democracy. Similarly, he opens the play with a stirring prologue in movement, in which 10 actors in '30s suits and fedoras slouch, sling themselves over chairs, hitch up their trousers, and brawl, establishing the gangster imagery that is the play's template, and winking at our familiarity with this vocabulary as an artificial framework.

Soon, though, Chambers gets overwhelmed simply by the task of keeping the plot clear, and the production loses its urgency and tautness. In large measure that's because his cast is just not up to the task. As Ui, Jon Bernthal comes across more like the guy throwing spitballs from the back of your geometry class than as the compelling paranoid sociopath Ui has to be. As Roma, Timothy Fannon forces his voice through his nose, collapses his chest and cranes out his neck to create a sleazy slump, and, most irritating, wags his tongue constantly—all cartoony tics that distract without adding any insight to the character.

Still, with Hitler currently represented as a swishy fellow with "a song in his heart" in the defanged musicalization of The Producers, and soon to warm our cockles in a CBS miniseries on his troubled childhood, Fovea Floods' Arturo Ui reminds us—as Brecht's epic theater always sought to do—not to forsake our own critical powers even when, especially when, we're feeling desperate.

Fight the cauliflower: Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
photo: Jay Muhlin
Fight the cauliflower: Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui


Sholom Asch was no Marxist, and he wasn't half as good a playwright as Brecht, but his 1906 Yiddish melodrama God of Vengeanceputs the contradictions of capitalism—and religion—into a hothouse. Tracing the efforts of a brothel keeper, Yankl Tshaptshovitsh, to become an upstanding member of the community, Asch explores the moral predicaments of the clash between modern and traditional worlds in intimate, tragic terms. There's been an explosion of interest in this play in recent years as scholars have unearthed its peculiar fate on Broadway in an English-language production in 1923—the cast and producer were arrested after a performance for promulgating obscenity. It wasn't only that the play portrayed the lives of prostitutes. Yankl's daughter—whom he's trying to marry off to a Talmudic scholar—runs off with a woman in his employ. The two provided Broadway with its first (and have there been any since?) steamy lesbian love scenes.

Several productions I've seen in the last few years seem driven merely by a prurient interest in this romance. They have been awful. But Donald Margulies's vivid adaptation—which played at the Williamstown Theater Festival earlier this month in a crisp production directed by Gordon Edelstein and starring Ron Leibman—offers a much deeper and enriching approach, the only one I know of that makes this play worth reviving. Drawn, no doubt, by the play's affinities with his own mordant Jewish family dramas, Margulies has transported the action from a Polish city at the turn of the century to the Lower East Side of the 1920s. There, Margulies can emphasize the theme of assimilation as he follows Yankl (who, in this version, atones for having changed his name to Jack Chapman) through his catastrophic collapse. Is assimilation always a kind of pimping? Teasing out the pesky questions of spirit, love, family, and commerce at the heart of Asch's play, Margulies, some 80 years after the actor Rudolf Shildkrout tried, has achieved crossover success, making God of Vengeance a profoundly compelling American play.

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