Culture Jew: Three Plays, One Charming, One Funny, One Brilliant — and a Movie

It’s a long time since the Oscars, and I’ve spent a lot of it in the theater.

What’s the likelihood that a retired kosher butcher would land in a writing class taught by a young woman with the last name of Katzif? For those who know that “katzif” is Yiddish for butcher, the coincidence is highly unlikely, but sweet nevertheless. That’s an apt description for “A Letter to Harvey Milk,” the new musical at the Acorn in Theatre Row. Riddled with cliches, studded with ancient Borscht Belt jokes, and coated with a thick veneer of sentimentality, the 90-minute show set in 1986 San Francisco still manages to be genuinely affecting and enjoyable. Much of the credit goes to lively direction by Evan Pappas and an outstandingly sympathetic and menschy performance from Adam Heller, who plays the one-time butcher and would-be writer.

As the show opens, Harry Weinberg (Heller) doesn’t seem to know what to do with himself. He misses his deceased wife Frannie (Cheryl Stern) enough to keep up a conversation with her when she pops up in bed next to him. Aside from his daily breakfast of half an English muffin and a little cottage cheese, all he’s got going is the occasional visit to the Shakespeare Garden in Golden Gate Park and a new writing class at the JCC. This brand-new endeavor may be responsible for the bad dreams he’s been having, Frannie helpfully points out, but he’s loathe to give it up. His young teacher, Barbara Katzif (Julia Knitel), seems more than a little lost herself. Only loosely connected to her Jewish identity, the one thing she’s sure of is her homosexuality and her desire to preserve Jewish stories, whatever that means. In Harry, she sees the sturdy Jewish grandfather she never had in tony Connecticut. He even corrects her Americanized version of “zaidy” to “zaideh.”

Barbara begins to give Harry writing assignments, encouraging him to write what he sees. First, she asks him to describe an ordinary day, then urges him to focus on the details of what he does and sees. Her assignment to compose a letter to someone personally important who is no longer alive kicks the play’s central motif into gear. Despite Frannie’s coy insistence that he not write too much about her, Harry instead pens a letter to Harvey Milk, the openly gay Jewish San Francisco supervisor who was assassinated by Dan White in 1978. It turns out that Harvey (Michael Bartoli) not only was a Long Island landsman, but also an occasional customer at Harry’s store. And not only did Harry support his political campaign, he also kept jelly beans in the shop for the “sweet-toothed faigele.” Milk’s murder affected both Harry and Barbara in many different ways, and Barbara is deeply impressed with Harry’s composition.

The musical production number expressing Harry’s–and the city’s–grief after Milk’s death uses the small cast and simple set effectively, but it also offers the banal lyric “if enough of us hold hands, no one can hold a gun.” That sentiment has much more power this month than it may have had when the song was written, but it’s still pretty lame, as are many of the musical’s other lyrics. It’s safe to say that the reputations of songwriters Cole Porter and Frederick Loewe seem secure.  The several musicians playing the score in the balcony above the stage is a clever touch.

Still, “A Letter to Harvey Milk” overcomes that lyrical weakness and the occasionally cartoon-like figure of Frannie on the strength of the deeply felt performances of Heller and Knitel and the book’s tight plotting. Both Harry and Barbara have secrets that are eating away at them and the play, which is based on a short story by Leslea Newman, has secrets of its own, which won’t be spoiled here.  Writers Ellen M. Schwartz, Cheryl Stern, Laura I. Kramer, and Jerry James pack a lot into the one-act show and manage to bring it all together at the end.

When Equal Opportunity Hits Home

I loved Joshua Harmon’s “Admissions” at Lincoln Center, a biting satire of liberal white pieties, which pierces the smug certainty of our virtue. Sherri Rosen-Mason, brilliantly played by Jessica Hecht, is extraordinarily proud of her success at increasing the diversity at the fancy boarding school where she’s head of admissions. (She’s the type that torments the secretary taking photos for the brochure that the students of color are not “colorful” enough.) But when her son, Charlie (Ben Edelman) is wait-listed at Yale, the dream of his short life, while his best friend Perry gets in, both Charlie and Sherri are crushed and angry. Needless to say, Perry is partly black, and it’s impossible for Charlie not to believe that’s the reason he got in, since Perry’s SAT scores were not as good and he didn’t take as many AP classes! I overheard a similar conversation on the A train yesterday, minus the racial component, between three teenage girls, who were kvetching about what Ivy had rejected their applications and accepted those of an undeserving classmate. Talk about first-world problems.

One of the funniest and most successful scenes in the play is Charlie’s 17-minute screed on what constitutes diversity. Is Kim Kardashian a person of color? If so, then why isn’t Marion Cotillard? Why doesn’t Charlie’s grandfather’s Holocaust history entitle him to be considered a minority? The speech picks apart the nonsensical logic that underlies so much of our conversation of white privilege and/or its lack.

I saw one of Harmon’s previous plays, “Significant Other,” but this one is much sharper and tighter. A funny if uncomfortable 90 minutes in the theater.

“Angels in America” Is Theater Heaven

Eight hours long, shown in two parts on different days, the National Theatre production of Tony Kushner’s multi-award winning play “Angels in America” is one of the most extraordinary theatrical experiences I’ve ever had. Brilliantly directed and staged by Marianne Elliott, the play manages to be both thrilling and moving, challenging and funny, surreal and realistic, all at the same time. First produced in the midst of the AIDS crisis, at a time when many gay people were hidden deep in the closet, the play feels as contemporary today as it did in the early 1990’s, even though the disease is now reliably managed and gay people find widespread acceptance in culture and society. Kushner’s amalgam of politics, religion, psychology, sex, and American history still provokes and reveals and probes issues that continue to confound us.

The play also provides great, juicy roles for actors, and this production boasts a ton of them. Andrew Garfield as Prior, Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn, Lee Pace as Joe, Denise Gough as Harper, James McArdle as Louis–all are marvelous. Nine actors play numerous parts; they must be in great physical shape to get through the three-hour-plus performances.

Commissioned by the Eureka Theater in San Francisco, the play was first performed in 1990 as a workshop in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum. The first (and stronger) part, “Millennium Approaches,” premiered in San Francisco, then went to London in 1992 when Kushner had not yet completed the second part, “Perestroika.” The entire two-part play came to Broadway in 1993. It won the Tony and Drama Desk awards for best play in 1993 and 1994 respectively. The current revival at the Neil Simon Theatre comes from the West End, with much of the original British and American cast.

“Angels in America” roughly follows the intersection of two couples from October 1985 through January 1986, with an epilogue set in 1990. Uber WASP and former drag queen Prior Walter and his boyfriend, the leftist Jew Louis Ironson, are struggling to deal with Prior’s diagnosis of full-blown AIDS. Meanwhile, Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt is having trouble with his neurotic wife Harper. She hides in their Brooklyn apartment popping Valium while he cozies up to his mentor Roy Cohn, the notorious anti-Communist and secret homosexual. Cohn is the linchpin in these relationships and inspires some of Kushner’s most outraged, outrageous, and hilarious dialogue. He is a volcanic presence on stage, and Nathan Lane captures that irresistible charisma. For anyone who saw the HBO miniseries starring Al Pacino as Cohn, it’s hard to forget Pacino’s intense submersion into the character, but Lane’s powerful stage presence makes it impossible to look away.

Unable to cope with Prior’s worsening health, Louis leaves him and soon initiates a romance with Joe, who is just beginning to acknowledge his homosexuality. Desperately unhappy, Harper starts to wander, perhaps metaphorically, to distant continents and locations, where she runs into Prior, also wandering far from his hospital bed. Sick with AIDS, Roy Cohn hallucinates visits from Ethel Rosenberg, the woman he prosecuted for espionage and ultimately had executed. As Prior experiences surreal visions, he hears an otherworldly voice telling him that he is a prophet,  and he is warned to expect a visitation. Spiritual beings invade the world.

Widely considered one of the best American plays of the second half of the twentieth century, “Angels in America” is a great Jewish play as well.  It opens with an Orthodox rabbi conducting the funeral of Louis Ironson’s immigrant grandmother and includes the recital of the kaddish, the prayer for the dead, over the body of Roy Cohn near the play’s end. In between, we hear all the arguments about socialism that once convulsed the Jewish world, as well as a deep exploration of Jewish American identity. References to the Torah pepper the play, with Prior actually wrestling an angel and incurring an injury to his leg. Religion, both Judaism and variants of Christianity, is central to the action, and true faith is taken seriously. The religious beliefs of Joe, Harper, and Joe’s mother Hannah provide both strength and torment, and both Louis’s socialism and Cohn’s anti-Communism feel like religions, in that they inform their beliefs and guide their behaviors.  The drama of celestial beings evokes awe, as it does in religious communities everywhere. “Angels in America” is a great play, and this production at the Neil Simon Theatre is an unforgettable theater experience.

Marx and Engels: The Bromance

Raoul Peck’s “The Young Karl Marx” is an admiring look at the relationship between the impoverished writer and philosopher Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the son of a wealthy factory owner. Marx and Engels met in 1844 Paris at a time when the labor movement was still weak and disorganized, struggling to respond to the Industrial Revolution. Engels had been doing a lot of research into the lives of textile and printing workers and he added that first-hand knowledge to Marx’s more theoretical musings on the relationship between capital and labor. The Haitian-born Peck, who was educated in Germany, directed the wonderful documentary about James Baldwin “I Am Not Your Negro” and another film about Patrice Lumumba, so his political leanings are no mystery. Good acting and an intelligent script make the film entertaining rather than polemical and I learned a lot about a period unknown  to me. It’s sad to note that the labor movement is once more struggling to respond to an economic change that is disempowering workers. Vicky Krieps from “Phantom Thread” plays Marx’s loving and radical wife. Available on VOD.

About the Author
Miriam Rinn is currently a freelance writer based in NJ, where she has lived for several decades. She worked as a children's book editor, a freelance writer and editor, and a communications manager for a nonprofit organization. She is the author of the children's novel "The Saturday Secret," which was recently selected by PJ Our Way. She has two married sons and four granddaughters.