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Shticks and Stones 

Two new Jewish comedies set during the war

Wednesday, Nov 4 1998
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There's not much a playwright can do with a Nazi anymore. Have a Brown Shirt goose-step across the stage and we get the point, almost too quickly. Like flipping a Chihuahua with a choke chain, there's no ambiguity in the gesture, no wiggle room for the emotional tug and pull that makes a drama. This wasn't the case when The Sound of Music ran for 443 performances on the heels of eight Tony awards, but almost 40 years later, the edges of the swastika have grown dull from overuse. This must be one of the reasons new writers are now treating Nazis and the Holocaust with considerably more subtlety than in the past - a subtlety that may keep the trauma alive, but at the risk of muting it, like wisps of smoke that conjure the memory of an inferno.

You can witness our changing relationship to one of the century's defining events in a pair of new Jewish domestic comedies. Although they're both set during World War II, each keeps the war more or less at a distance - overseas, brought to life only by fleeting references to newspaper coverage. In last year's Old Wicked Songs at the Geffen Playhouse (also a new work), playwright Jon Marans planted the concentration camps in the memory of a crusty Viennese music teacher, who only reluctantly allowed them to emerge. Now, in Israel Horovitz's Today, I Am a Fountain Pen (Fountain Theater) and Alfred Uhry's The Last Night of Ballyhoo (Cañon Theater) - comedies that grapple head-on with Jewish identity - the crashing thunder of European anti-Semitism can be heard as little more than an ambient chord, a reference point, a small historical irony against the real dramas of a 10-year-old boy eating bacon in his kosher household, of a young Jewish woman floundering in pursuit of a date for a big social dance.

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To be fair, Fountain Pen is set near the war's start (1941) and is but the first play in Horovitz's "Growing Up Jewish" trilogy, set in a Canadian town during the '40s; the second (A Rosen by Any Other Name) takes place three years later and does deal with a father's paranoia over the news from Europe, and his compulsion to change his name to something less Jewish - a compulsion dismissed by his family as lunacy.

I didn't see Rosen, or The Chopin Playoffs, the trilogy's final installment. Sitting through Fountain Pen was more than enough of Mr. Horovitz's opus - a blanket of borscht-belt rim shots, sweet nostalgia and ethnic cliches thrown somewhat aimlessly about the theater by director Hope Alexander-Willis.

The 10-year-old boy Irving is played by Max Freedman, who looks about the right age, and at least half of his jokes land near the center of the dart board. He's also required to roll his eyes, turn his palms skyward and talk like Mel Brooks, and that's not an easy mask for a 10-year-old actor to wear for any extended period of time. Freedman's effort is a noble one, but it's not enough to carry the play.

Fountain Pen's boy-meets-goy coming-of-age story concerns precocious Irving's muted romantic affections for 15-year-old Annie - an Armenian live-in maid, sweetly played by Sharon Bart - and Irving's coming to terms with the petty hypocrisies of his vivacious, loving parents (Barry Kramer and Susan Merson). The children both reach for forbidden fruit: Irving for a taste of bacon, Annie for time with her Italian boyfriend, Pete (David Mendenhall), a romance banned by her opera-loving, Italian-hating father (Time Winters).

Irving and Annie sleep across from each other in the same room. There deals are struck, innocence is tested. Annie contrives clandestine meetings with Pete by taking Irving to the movies. Three's a crowd, naturally, so Pete pays the kid to disappear during smooching interludes - a painful arrangement for the smitten young Irving, who, though he spends much time at the parlor piano, is really practicing to be Woody Allen.

And by the way, there's a war on in Europe.

The challenge of directing three plays in rep may have been too ambitious for director Alexander-Willis, whose obvious passion for Horovitz's work is dubiously expressed in a slapdash production that generally mistakes gusto for artistry. Though Irving sits at a spinet, his playing comes over the house speakers sounding like a cheesy prerecorded synthesizer. As somebody once noted, God is in the details.

If getting the most out of the least is any indicator, Alfred Uhry is the most successful playwright in American history. With only two full-length plays (Driving Miss Daisy and The Last Night of Ballyhoo), he has garnered awards from the American Theater Critics Association and the Drama League, two Outer Critics Circle awards, a Tony, an Oscar and a Pulitzer Prize. This would be even more impressive if either play were particularly good.

For Ballyhoo, as for Daisy, Uhry taps his background of growing up Jewish in the deep South. His social observation of Jewish self-hatred and internecine bigotry - the German Jews look down their noses at their Eastern European counterparts -gives Ballyhoo its exotic appeal, and if cultural anthropology and craftsmanship in themselves constituted a play, Ballyhoo would have deserved its Tony. But a play is also a song, and Uhry strays out of tune. He's all Southern cadence, but without the lilt.

Ballyhoo compares itself, self-consciously, to The Glass Menagerie, but Uhry just isn't in Tennessee Williams' league. Rather, he's the heir apparent to William Inge, a far more workmanlike playwright.

Most of Ballyhoo is set in 1939 Atlanta, in the home of Adolph Freitag (Peter Michael Goetz), an affluent businessman who has become the world-weary patriarch of his Jewish clan, and who lives with a pair of widowed sisters (Rhea Perlman and Harriet Harris), one of whom was married to his brother. Each of the sisters has a daughter, and the drama centers on the rivalry between these two young cousins.

Part of the play's point is how dilettante Lala (svelte Perrey Reeves), a college dropout, feels she's not beautiful because of her Semitic facial features, when it's evident that her real problem is emotional instability. Meanwhile, her studious blond beauty of a cousin, Sunny (Rebecca Gayheart), is just back from Wellesley College, where she's doing just fine, thank you very much. While Sunny reads Upton Sinclair in her spare time, Lala frets about the big annual dance - the Ballyhoo - and how to find a suitable date.

By the way, there's a war on in Europe.

The central problem for Lala and her mom, Boo, is that "Lala is the only girl in her crowd not married." Enter Joe Farkas (Mark Kassen), a dashing salesman (or should that be "gentleman caller"?) down from New York, trying to learn Southern ways. One scene has two couples waltzing in the home, just before leaving for the Ballyhoo - Lala dressed in a lavish debutante's gown, Joe dancing with Sunny. Clumsy Joe spins into Lala, accidentally tearing her dress. Lala gasps. All stop - as though Joe has just broken the horn off Laura's glass unicorn! It's really the same scene, or at least the same tone. But neither the symbols nor the dialogue has Williams' precision.

In one of Menagerie's climactic scenes, Laura's brother, Tom, goes after their mother, calling her a witch; with the right actors, it can have the horrifying, cathartic force of a Greek tragedy. Uhry tries for similar effect, with Lala confronting Sunny over her looks and her advantages, screaming, "You had yours and you wanted mine!" Here, though, the outburst is an embarrassing and trite display of family rivalry. The actors are not to blame for this; the cast is first-rate, under Ron Lagomarsino's modulated direction. It's just that where Williams wrote poetry, Uhry writes talk.

And yet, Ballyhoo and The Glass Menagerie are both about the condition of being an outsider, and about the cruelties inflicted by insiders. This, of course, is Ballyhoo's most salient link to that war across the Atlantic.

The production is ornate in a traditionally opulent way, the Gothic arches of John Lee Beatty's rust-toned palatial set color-coordinated with Jane Greenwood's period costumes. This family has so much taste, their clothes match the walls. Perhaps it's to compensate for their feelings of having no class, and such a flimsy connection to history.

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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