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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,

November 14.

"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

special."

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

I need."

– Sally Friedman

Mamaleh!, Crossroads Theatre, 7 Livingston Avenue, New

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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