Electra To Broaday

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This review by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on October 28, 1998. All rights reserved.

`Meshugah' at McCarter

The world has turned meshugah," (i.e. crazy, nuts) declares Max (Michael Constantine), a 67-year-old Polish Jew, the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust. It is 1952 and Max has made a good and prosperous life for himself in America as a stock speculator investing the funds of Jewish widows. We meet Max when he appears one day like a ghost from the past to his old friend from Warsaw, Aaron Greidinger (David Chandler), a late 40ish author who writes serial stories and advice columns in Yiddish for the Jewish Daily Forward.

Although Aaron, who also has no remaining family in the old country, was fated to escape from the Polish ghetto before the Holocaust, he still confesses "I am a lost soul myself" to the self-congratulatory older man who is blowing cigar smoke in his face.

These are but two of the various lost and found souls in "Meshugah," the play that McCarter Theater's artistic director Emily Mann has perhaps too reverentially adapted from the terse tragi-comic novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer (who died in 1991). As with the main body of Mann's previous plays, including "Having Our Say" and "Greensboro," we can't shake the feeling that we are getting skillfully edited prose embellished with live action.

The billowing smoke from Max's large expensive cigar that he expends with great elan into Aaron's office also symbolizes the dense cloud of misery and mystery that resides behind the faces of Holocaust survivors at the center of this often riveting, yet too often relentlessly didactic, collective portrait.

"I have experienced the full range of Jewish miseries," says Max to the younger man with whom he has been miraculously reunited. That statement means more than the haunting memories of the recent past to Max. Max confides that he is married to Priva (Rita Zohar), a wealthy woman he detests, as well as the devoted lover of Miriam (Elizabeth Marvel), a beautiful beguiling and provocative young emotionally scarred Holocaust victim with a dark past.

The full range of Jewish miseries are set to fall upon Aaron when he falls passionately in love with Miriam who confesses, like all the women Aaron meets, that "I read every word you write." Miriam claims she has set as her goal in life to make Aaron famous. She will do more than that. However, Miriam is married to a highly neurotic and jealous poet Stanley (Jason Kolotouros), who has no qualms about breaking up the lovers' tryst with a gun in his hand.

With Stanley out in left field, Aaron, Max and Miriam begin a mutually consenting menage a trois. This is the emotional core of the play, although the characters' tendency never to stop talking (more to us it seems than to each other) gets in the way of real involvement for them and us. There is an assortment of odd and amusing Manhattan-based Jews who are filtered through the play via Aaron's self-revealing narrative.

When major characters aren't purging, there are some genuinely funny minor characters that appear as comic, almost cartoonish, cameos. Donning a variety of wigs and beards, Allen Swift is wonderful in three roles; the best is Morris, Miriam's lovingly let's-make-a-deal father who is willing to give Aaron as an incentive a huge dowry as a wedding gift. Gordana Rashovich is equally intriguing as Tzlova, Max and Priva's demure, yet talkative, cook, and as Stefa, a married woman with whom Aaron once had an affair and with whom he continues to be friendly.

A series of events eventually bring the core characters to a reunion in Tel Aviv. There, Aaron will not only receive a writer's award but hear some devastating news destined to alter his life, his relationship with Miriam, and others. On the way, we are party to a good many long speeches and personal epiphanies, as well as an earful of easily assimilated Yiddish phrases amid large dollops of Jewish wisdom. Recalling the apt cliche that less is more, some judicious pruning throughout is called for in this 2-1/2 hour play.

Although centered and fluid, Mann's direction lacks force and dynamics. But Chandler is excellent as the protagonist with an unwritten novel in his head and an enigmatic woman in his heart. Constantine makes the larger impression as the likable, forceful ill-fated Max. And Marvel is mesmerizing as the surprising and sensual Miriam.

Designer Thomas Lynch's setting of tall abstracted slanted panels and criss-crossed overhead barbed wire tends to dwarf the intimacy of the action as well as the pieces of furniture that glide in and out. Neil Peter Jampolis' haunting lighting and Jennifer von Mayrhauser's '50s perfect costumes make stunning impressions.

-- Simon Saltzman

Meshugah, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, 609-683-8000. $25 to $36. To November 8.

Electra To Broaday

It's official. McCarter Theater's production of "Electra," starring Zoe Wanamaker, opens at Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theater for an eight-week run. Performances begin Thursday, November 19, with opening night on Thursday, December 3. David Leveaux directs the production that originated at London's Donmar Warehouse Theater and which won Wanamaker that city's Olivier Award for best actress.

The new adaptation by Frank McGuinness also features Claire Bloom as the imperious Clytemnestra, Marin Hinkle as the sister Chrysothemis, Michael Cumpsty as Orestes, Stephen Spinella as Orestes' servant, and Pat Carroll as the Chorus of Mycenae.

"The most important question about Electra is not why she must avenge her father's death, it is why she is inconsolable," Wanamaker told U.S. 1 (September 16, 1998) during a break between rehearsals at McCarter. "That question can provoke some surprising answers, not least that the deepest gesture in her is not violence, it is love." Wanamaker, who lost both her parents in recent years, says the transformation she must undergo during each and every performance of "Electra" is "a sort of exorcism."

"Wanamaker is simply magnificent as an Electra rooted in impassioned and wild madness," wrote U.S. 1 critic Simon Saltzman. "She can take her place alongside some of the greatest Electras of the stage from Katina Paxinou to Fiona Shaw." For tickets call TeleCharge at 212-239-6200. The Barrymore Theater box office opens Thursday, November 5.

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