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