CultureJew: One Indie, One Foreign, and One Off-Broadway

Sarah Silverman, the pretty Jewish comedienne with the nasty mouth, has been expanding into drama lately. She played a sweet lesbian who is longing to be a mother on the recently ended season of “Masters of Sex” and in the new independent film “I Smile Back,” she plays a suburban mom–from Teaneck, no less–but this one is the opposite of sweet. Written by Amy Koppelman (based on her novel) and Paige Dylan, and directed by Adam Salky, “I Smile Back” is a junkie movie, and your appreciation will probably depend on how much patience and sympathy you have for multiple-substance abusing wealthy housewives. Silverman plays Laney, a wife with two young children, who in addition to having an affair with her best friend’s husband, takes far too many pills and eats far too little food. Her doting husband is played by Josh Charles, who we see all over the place since he left “The Good Wife.” This isn’t one of his best roles. Charles is always interesting to watch, but he really doesn’t have anything compelling to do or say here. Laney screws up over and over, both before and after rehab, and he seems either sympathetic or disapproving. Silverman plays the part straight, not asking for pity but also not giving us any insight into why Laney is as self-destructive as she is. She may not be a good enough actress to do that, but the director and screenwriter don’t provide any help either.

Spain’s Oscar Entry Is Not in Spanish

The deeply developed characters in “Flowers,” Spain’s entry for the foreign-language Oscar, speak Basque rather than Spanish, a language that sounds vaguely Balkan. Moody and contemplative, this film is built around a triangle of women. Ani is a sad middle-aged clerk for a construction company. She and her husband have no children and barely speak to one another. Her life seems as barren as she is. When lavish bouquets of flowers begin to arrive weekly with no cards, Ani is secretly as delighted as her husband is irritated. The viewer figures out who the sender is before Ani does–it is Benat, a crane operator at Ani’s construction site–but we don’t really know why he is so taken with her. Perhaps it’s because his own home life is less than satisfying. Benat is married to Lourdes, a short-tempered toll taker with a young son, and Lourdes is in a pitched battle with Benat’s mother Tere, who desperately wants a grandchild.  Nothing Lourdes does pleases Tere, and Benat is caught uncomfortably in the middle.

When Benat is killed in a highway accident, Ani begins to bring flowers to the crash site. Tere finds out who she is and the two women become close. Lourdes, meanwhile, is trying desperately to push the memory of Benat away and cuts herself off from his family. Slow and solemn, “Flowers” is an affecting meditation on disappointment and loss. The acting is very fine, and the directors Jon Garano and Jose Mari Goenaga are sensitive to the emotional depths that lay beneath a quiet surface.

Death of a Salesman

A great play remains vital and relevant no matter how old it is, and Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” has certainly proven itself to be a great play. Close to seventy years old, the play’s desperately striving characters, obsessed with money and making it, feel as contemporary today as they did when they first stepped onto the stage in 1949.  With each production, the attentive viewer finds something new to explore, and in New Yiddish Rep’s presentation of the play at the Castillo Theatre, we can appreciate the deep Jewish roots of this essential American story.

Arthur Miller was a Jew and grew up among Yiddish-speaking Jews in New York. Many Jews who see “Death of a Salesman” feel intuitively that the dialogue has a Yiddish tang and that this is a Jewish family. Though Willy Loman is not identified as Jewish, it’s never really in question. The Lomans are the classic lower-middle-class Jewish family, hoping for greater things for the kids, terrified of sliding down the ladder into the working class.

Directed by Moshe Yassur, the New Yiddish Rep’s production eliminates the scenery and elaborate sets and focuses on the actors and the words. The simplicity of the production underlines the expressionistic quality of the play. While it is often considered a realist classic, “Death of a Salesman” is not a strictly naturalistic play. Dead people appear, time shifts abruptly, memory merges with reality.  Stage veteran Avi Hoffman’s heart-rending performance as Willy brings out the pathos of the aging salesman teetering on the edge of suicidal depression. He is a man who feels himself a failure in every way, unable even to hold on to the little he has. His wife Linda is beautifully played by Suzanne Toren with almost saintly devotion and dignity. The Lomans are a portrait of what married love can be–a sanctuary of understanding and sympathy. Hoffman and Toren are both experienced and talented actors and their Yiddish is flawless.

Most Jews are financially secure today, but everyone except the super-rich is haunted by the possibility of ruin. We hound our children to study ever harder, engage special tutors to teach them esoteric skills, fight with their teachers and coaches to be more forgiving. In other words, we do all the things that Willy does or wants to do. Somehow, it’s never enough. Mille’s vision of the ravenous nature of American capitalism is as acute as ever, and the New Yiddish Rep’s production brings it into sharp focus.

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.
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