A Real Mammy’s Boy
Even back in 1925, when George Jessel played Jack Robin—born Jakie Rabinowitz—in The Jazz Singer, Samson Raphaelson’s play about a cantor’s son determined to abandon the synagogue for the stage struck Broadway cynics as emotionally manipulative hooey. So there has to be a reason other than dramaturgical quality to revive it. Ostensibly, the incentive is a performer the caliber of Al Jolson, whose movie version (Jessel asked Warner Brothers for too much money) made history as the first talkie that clicked with the public.
Since the piece is not a Jolson bio, there’s no obligation for a singing actor to do an impersonation. But implicit is the promise that some one with Jolson’s overwhelming charisma—he was the Bruce Springsteen of the century’s first half—will be out there working the room. How else to bring verve to a dramatic setup like Jakie’s having to decide on opening night whether to chuck Broadway to chant “Kol Nidre” in shul as a sub for his ailing papa? How else to revitalize the signature songs Jolson blasted from screens in his guttural, impassioned baritone?
Ric Ryder, the Jewish Rep’s Jolson stand-in, is a likable, reliable player, but whereas Jolson performed with the Lower East Side street-cred Jews acquired back in the day, Ryder is more the grown altar boy. He’s ill-prepared to ride victoriously roughshod over the ramshackle book director Richard Sabellico has jury-rigged from Raphaelson’s original. Ryder—sometimes aided by a cast that includes brassy, Jolson-esque Beth Leavel—sings “Mammy” and other familiar period ditties but, inexplicably, not “Sonny Boy” (it’s given to another cast member) or Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” which was the movie’s big hit. For those wondering: no blackface. —David Finkle
Ship of Fool
The Frying Pan, a lightship moored at Chelsea Piers, has rusted its way into a state of quaint decay. The boat’s interior holds scraps of furnishings and a maze of cogs, boilers, and pipes. Playwright Chris Van Strander and director Tor Ekeland have selected it as a stage for their show Daniel Pelican. As Pelican recounts a history of doomed voyages and seamen’s foundered hopes, this milieu might seem an inspired choice. However, the only real resonance between the work and its environment is that Pelican proves no more yare than the vessel upon which it plays.
Pelican takes its cues from the tale of Donald Crowhurst. A decidedly amateur yachts man, Crowhurst entered an around-the-world race sponsored by The London Sunday Times in 1968. Displeased with his standing, he duped the racing committee, transmitting fake coordinates. The ruse went undiscovered until Crowhurst, drifting into insanity toward race’s end, took a header into Davy Jones’s locker. Van Strander shifts the story to America in the ’20s, a nation flushed with Lucky Lindy fever. A failed businessman, Daniel Pelican (Van Strander) longs for
Lindbergh-like ac claim. He elects to sail in the Boston Globe‘s “Around Alone Regatta,” much to the dismay of his long-suffering wife, Molly. Like Crowhurst, he cooks the log books and is acknowledged a hero.
Van Strander has written what he must have believed to be a cracking part for himself, full of crowing and strutting and painful self-delusion. But he seems uncomfortable in the character’s skin—though not quite in the way that Pelican feels uncomfortable in his own. Much of the dialogue sounds improvised, the play runs half an hour too long, and the pacing is far from smooth (at least on opening night). Furthermore, the script sags with murky chronologies and plot inconsistencies. Perhaps the playwright should learn from his protagonist’s errors and aim to chart a straighter, simpler course. —Alexis Soloski
My Four Generations
For Dreaming Through History (78th Street Theatre Lab), playwright Lizzie Olesker needed a narrative on which to hang her family story—about four generations of an intense, Jewish family—but she picked the wrong one. Or maybe any linear plot would have worked against this warm mélange of present and past, memory and fantasy, which, at its best, swirls airily like a Chagall mural.
Sarah (Meg MacCary) narrates. She’s a divorced grad student who’s been diagnosed with the same cancer that killed her mother, Viv (Charlotte Colavin), and nearly wrecked her grandma Etta (Caroline Rossi). The players are divided between the living—Sarah, her ex-husband Ralph (Chris Hutchison), and Bubba Etta in the nursing home—and the dead: Etta’s Russian immigrant parents Abram and Ida (Joel Corino and Masha Obolensky), and Viv, a tough single mom of the old school. The departed—especially fiery union organizer Abram—urge Sarah to investigate the toxic dump under their Catskills home as a possible source of the cancer that has afflicted the family.
This pollution quest, didactic and inauthentic, allows Olesker to paint overlapping scenes of the family’s loves, children, deaths, disappointments: Ida, homesick and rebuffed by Abram, threatening to plunge a knife into her guts, Sarah hoisting Bubba on her shoulders to show the dying old lady the starry night. Under Eileen Phelan’s fluid direction, some of these vignettes are magical, and each actor has some effective moments—Colavin’s most unmaternal Viv is dryly funny. As Bubba, Rossi makes the old lady a force—pugnacious, vulnerable, lost in the past but then suddenly snapping to wily attention. Like the others, only more so, she bursts free of the play’s artificial premise and makes her own case for being. —Francine Russo