Dumbed-Down Lower East Side Jews Swap Haimeshe Pickle for Jacuzzi

The subject of Jewish identity and denial is a troubling, vast

theme for a play, and questions of assimilation and historic loss shouldn’t be

treated glibly. But I’m afraid that Everett

Beekin , Richard Greenberg’s new drama about two generations of Jews living

in 1940′s New York and late-1990′s California, strikes me as an awesomely easy

cliché of American rootlessness and Jewish life.

The author of the well-regarded Eastern Standard and Three

Days of Rain intends to show us the disintegration of Jewish culture, from

the lives of the Manhattan tenement family in Act I to the assimilated,

sybaritic next generation in contemporary Orange County. (The play was first

produced by Orange County’s South Coast Repertory Company.) Let it pass for the

moment that the dramatist retreads the usual

tired ideas and jokes about superior, intellectual New York versus

empty-headed Los Angeles (where the sun shines a lot). His too-predictable

symbol of L.A. as cultural wasteland is as superficial as claiming a loss of

identity by swapping a haimeshe

pickle for an outdoor Jacuzzi. Where are Mr. Greenberg’s Jews really coming

from? Where are they going?

The disappointing answer here is: from one stereotype to another.

Mr. Greenberg is surely capable of more than the comforting, sentimentalized

“slice of Jewish life” he’s created for the short first act, in which even the

words bubkus and bubeleh are enough to make the audience kvell at the Mitzi E. Newhouse, Lincoln Center. Set in the Lower East Side of 1947, the picture we’re given

is uncomfortably close to a harmless sitcom in which the only issue is whether

the goy will get the girl. (He doesn’t; she dies.)

There’s Ma with the Yiddish accent from the old country who, to

the embarrassment of her more assimilated visiting daughters, goes ” Wuss ?” and ” Shah !” She’s “a character,” washing bank notes and hanging them out

to dry. “This way it dries,” she explains. “This way it’s clean.”

“Your father, may he rot in hell,” Ma says later, “you couldn’t

scratch out of bed to look at a tree. He didn’t know from a flower. So he dies.

A fat lot of good it does him, his

city … I want you should know, if I drop dead tonight on the sidewalk of a heart

condition, don’t ever let a kind word pass your lips to my sister.”

“We won’t, ma.”

There’s talk of her mean rich sister shvitzing in her mink in July. There’s

her smart, bickering daughters, Sophie (Robin Bartlett), with her shlump of a husband, and Anna (Bebe

Neuwirth), whose husband is having a breakdown. She’s expecting a child. If

it’s a boy, she’ll name him Stephen, and if it’s a girl, Celia after Celia

Johnson in Brief Encounter . (Now

there’s assimilation for you.) There’s also a bedridden younger sister, Miri,

the spoiled baby of the family, who’s said to suffer from summer colds. “She

has a cold like I have a fortune of money,” says the knowing Sophie.

Enter the blue-eyed gentile Jimmy Constant, who intends to marry

Miri and make his fortune in California. Here comes trouble! But not as much as

you might think. Ma has the expected hysterics, but upwardly mobile Anna has no

objections. Sophie goes in for her usual sour sitcom philosophy.

“She loves me,” Jimmy says of his betrothed. “She respects me,

she’s attracted to me, she enjoys my company.”

“And from this you build a marriage?” says Sophie.

Now, all of this is fine and dandy, if it’s for you-including the

yakking about weight problems, Ma’s cooking, moving to Westchester and Jewish

noses. (Anna’s Abe is described contemptuously by one of the family as having a

nose “like a Watusi,” in which case my entire family are proudly Watusi.) But

this shallow portrait is meant to convey the changing world of Jewish ritual

and culture. Come on! It’s a Jackie Mason culture-not an authentic one, not a

kingdom of the heart and mind, lost or abandoned.

How is it possible that even in Mr. Greenberg’s semi-assimilated

Jewish family of 1947, there could be no mention of the Holocaust? A Jewish

home of the period that ignores the Holocaust isn’t one worth visiting for two

seconds. Even a secular Jewish family of the time would have had fierce and

emotional debates about Zionism and the emerging state of Israel (as my own

family did). Nor were civil rights and anti-Semitism strangers to the crowded

postwar slums of the Lower East Side, or a cultivated intellectual vigor and

curiosity, a social conscience or-my goodness-even the presence of God. But all

Mr. Greenberg has given us is bickering over brisket.

Nothing comes from nothing.

When Everett Beekin migrates to the

sky-blue vacuity of Orange County half a century later, Mr. Greenberg is asking

us to mourn the loss of one lazy culture lite for another. The stereotypes change, but the dramatist’s focus

grows fuzzier, the approach more consciously literary. Anna from the first act

now has middle-aged daughters, the bickering Celia and Nell (also played by the

accomplished Ms. Bartlett and Ms. Neuwirth). Uneasy, questing Celia, the New

Yorker permanently in a coat in the Californian heat, is visiting thoroughly

assimilated, conventional Nell in Orange County. “What is that body of water?”

she inquires. (It’s the Pacific.)

Body of water? Who

talks this way? Mr. Greenberg’s arch eloquence can jar. “Things have been insisting

on themselves lately,” says Celia. “Am I innumerate?” ( Innumerate : marked by an ignorance of mathematics.) “A menagerie of

the impossibly old” is lyrical Greenberg-speak for a retirement home.

The longer, fragmentary Act II reveals that Nell’s lover is a

retired and wealthy pharmaceuticals fellow named Everett Beekin VII. His dad

was the business partner of the blue-eyed gentile from the first act. His son,

the laid-back Ev (the future Ev the Eighth) is about to be married to Nell’s

daughter, valley girl Laurel (possibly named after the canyon).

This is the way Jewish culture will end: not with a pickle, but

the marriage of a dude and a ditz. Celia, trying to make “connections,” dimly

remembers her grandmother washing money. Jittery Laurel runs off on a whim,

possibly to Israel because the shopping is good in Tel Aviv. Nell is upset

about the wedding caterers. Ev is upset about Laurel. Celia comforts Ev. Nell

is now upset with Celia. And Everett Beekin VII, who isn’t upset about

anything, tells a long, improbable story about his own family history that he

might have invented. Then again, he might not. Mr. Greenberg appears to be

saying, via Ev the Seventh, that all history becomes so vague that it has to be

imagined.

He’s mistaken.