With Shyster‘s Lower East Side wastrel Harry Sobel, playwright Bryan Goluboff has created a character almost unwatchably irritating. This Jewish prodigal son arrives home late for his father’s funeral, then starts harassing some of Dad’s longtime Black tenants who are late on the rent. But Ellis, the son in the Black family that Harry gives a hard time, claims that Harry’s father, in a final magnanimous gesture, verbally agreed to sell Ellis’s family the apartment and make him the building’s superintendent. Incensed he may have been supplanted in Dad’s affections by a Negro (who also dated his sister, but that’s a subplot), Harry scrabbles to prove Ellis a liar, stealing his custom radio for the purpose of extortion, and when that doesn’t work, suing him for the rent. Once he’s won the lawsuit, he attempts to blackmail Ellis into becoming his business partner.
Goluboff handles the details ably, and with a dollop of sensitivity—Harry may be a shyster, but he isn’t quite a Shylock. In flashback, we discover some of Harry’s problems began when he turned his back on his faith during his bar mitzvah, forever alienating his father. Yet Harry’s ultimate switch over to good guy comes as swiftly and unconvincingly as a pro wrestler’s. The play’s curious patina of Jewphobia could be cleared up somewhat were Harry not portrayed by sleazy Fisher Stevens, who augments his natural repulsiveness with shaky investment in the character, making even his equivocation look dubious. Ditto most of the cast of this Naked Angels show, who could have benefited from a vigorous pre-show warm-up—save for Annabella Sciorra, who infuses Harry’s Israeli-army-veteran sister with the complexity her brother lacks.