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This article by Sally Friedman was prepared for the November 10,
2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Drama: ‘Mamaleh’ at Crossroads
Growing up in the Hackensack area, Mitchell Uscher was the kid who was
always writing plays. From third grade on, he was front and center
when it came to creating performance art. So perhaps it was inevitable
that Uscher’s passion would turn into a playwriting career.
"My mother would say the genes come from an aunt of mine who really
wanted to be on the stage, but didn’t because my grandmother didn’t
think it was proper," says the genial Uscher. The New Jersey native is
the creator/producer of "Mamaleh!," a play about the intertwined lives
of women of different generations, and based loosely on his mother and
her two best friends as they went through life’s passages.
"Mamaleh!," which has been produced all over the country, including
off-Broadway, will be on stage at Crossroads Theater in New Brunswick
for a limited engagement from Wednesday, November 10, to Sunday,
"Frankly I never expected this play to have the run it has," says
Uscher, who first produced it five years ago expecting that its appeal
would be to women, particularly Jewish women, because like any good
writer, Uscher wrote what he knew – and he knew his own Jewish mother
and her milieu. The title comes from a Yiddishism meaning "someone
As it turns out, the play has far wider appeal. "It seems to cut
across all sorts of boundaries," says Uscher, and one of the biggest
surprises is that men seem particularly moved by it."
The tale of three best friends who meet for an inviolate monthly card
game, the play reaches back in time to their origins, to the immigrant
roots of their ancestors, and into the present and future, taking
audiences with them through the murky waters of change that define
modern life. There are views of real life from the perspective of
everything from family to the old neighborhood to mother-guilt.
Called "sweet, warm and winning" by the New York Times, "Mamaleh!"
doesn’t stop with the bittersweet tales of these bosom buddies; it
also incorporates music into the production. "I wrote the script and
the lyrics, but the music was provided by my colleague Roy Singer,"
explains Uscher, a graduate of Middlebury College, who also has
written several other musicals and who has enjoyed a career as a
freelance writer with an emphasis on travel and entertainment.
But "Mamaleh," he says, is special.
As a child, Uscher watched his mother and her two best friends as they
shared the bitter and the sweet. Florence Uscher, Shirley Quait, and
Kate Lorber had met as children living in the Bronx, and remained
friends over the years. As it turns out, his mother married Shirley
Quait’s brother, so that friendship also became a family tie.
"Even though they have sometimes moved miles apart from one another –
Kate even lived in Pakistan – they still see each other whenever they
can," says Uscher. "While the characters in the show aren’t actually
these three, they were the lovely models for the piece."
Playing the women in "Mamaleh!" are Deborah Tranelli, who co-starred
for 11 seasons as Phyllis in the "Dynasty" TV series; Joan Barber, a
Broadway veteran; and Mary Ellen Ashley, a veteran of TV, stage, and
film who once starred with Ethel Merman in "Annie Get Your Gun."
But the real "star" of the play is a concept: enduring friendship.
"It’s what has sustained so many of us, men and women," says Usher.
"It’s the glue, the thread, the vital source of connection. And that’s
the universal in ‘Mamaleh!’"
Often, whether the show is in Baltimore or Boca Raton, Uscher will
stand in the back and watch audience reaction. Some people know who he
is, most don’t. Recently after a performance a Jamaican woman stopped
to talk to the playwright. "Could you relate to what you saw?" Uscher
asked her. She didn’t miss a beat: "’It’s about family – you love ’em,
you hate ’em, but you love ’em more!’"
And that, agrees Uscher, is definitely one of the messages of
"Mamaleh!" Another is the universality of motherhood. "That’s MY
mother," an Indian woman in a sari insisted of one of the play’s
American Jewish characters.
One of the most gratifying responses came after an off-Broadway
performance when a twentysomething woman approached Uscher to say that
while she hadn’t called her grandmother in months, she was going home
to do just that.
"There’s a yearning in these tough times to find what matters. And
friendship and family are two of the big ones. "If this play can make
people want to reconnect," says Uscher, "that’s all the gratification
– Sally Friedman
Brunswick, November 10 at 8 p.m.; November 11 at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.;
November 12 at 8 p.m.; November 13 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; and November
14 at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Tickets: $4. 877-782-8311.
The Saturday, November 13, 8 p.m. performance is a benefit for the
Daniel Pearl Education Center of Temple B’nai Shalom in East
Brunswick. Pearl, the journalist murdered by terrorists in Pakistan in
early 2002, was born in New Brunswick and spent some of his early
years in Princeton. Call 732-251-4300, ext. 222 or 225. For
information about the center visit www.bnaishalom.com.
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