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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the October 24, 2001
of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Review: `The Book of Candy’
When the lights come up on "The Book of Candy"
we, the audience, are greeted by a rabbi as if we were congregants
at a Purim festival. As one of Judaism’s strangest yet most
holidays, Purim uses masquerade and feasting to celebrate the victory
of Queen Esther and her uncle Mordecai over a genocidal plot to kill
the Jews of ancient Persia. That the beautiful Jewish virgin Esther
is forced to become a king’s concubine, or that the villain Haman,
his 10 sons, and 75,000 non-Jews die in the course of events, only
adds to the thorny terrain of the biblical Book of Esther.
The fearless and prolific writer Susan Dworkin has addressed her own
questions and curiosities about the Book of Esther by composing first
her novel, "The Book of Candy," and now a musical play of
the same name.
In a world premiere presented by Trenton’s Passage Theater, in
with Playwrights Theater of New Jersey, "The Book of Candy"
opened at Mill Hill Playhouse on Friday, October 19, where it plays
through October 28. The show then moves to Playwrights in Madison
for performances November 1 to 18.
As a play within, "The Book of Candy’s" characters are so
anxious to please, the audience can’t help but be charmed by the
quality of their masquerade, the funny song lyrics steeped in
Jewish humor, and the lively tunes of the klezmer-like musical
that accompanies all. This quality of a sophomoric endeavor is both
the show’s endearing strength and its weakness. Over more than two
hours running time, its morality play tone and multivalent, mixed-up
plot, becomes grating.
Lauren Mufson plays the likable Candy Shapiro (nee Deal), a Long
native who has grown up to become a gynecologist’s wife. Mufson stars
with a well-rehearsed ensemble of seven additional musical actors
portraying a colorful complement of at least 18 other characters.
Directed by Ahvi Spindell, with choreography by Jennifer Paulson Lee,
the ensemble features Jill Abramovitz, Jonathan Brody, Connie Day,
Beth Glover, Ted Grayson, Adam Heller, and Martin Vidnovic.
Dworkin is a gifted lyricist, working with a lively and amusing score
by Mel Marvin that hits some predictable klezmer melodies but also
introduces touches of tango and other color music. All the actors
can sing, and under music director Vadim Feichtner, the energetic
pit orchestra of five is featured on clarinet and flute, keyboards,
percussion, and bass.
The stage setting reinforces the synagogue theme, its walls set with
two tablets inscribed with Hebrew letters signifying the Ten
Eight throne-like chairs across the back of the stage belong to each
member of the acting ensemble. Here they wait before donning simple
costume elements — a fringed prayer shawl, white lab coat, or
signature blue Tiffany’s bag — to mark the identity of the
entering the action.
When we first meet Candy, she’s a beloved little girl
growing up in Gimbels Inlet, Long Island, a community that boasts
the highest per capita income in the state of New York. The apple
of her father’s eye, Candy has all the outward trappings of a
Princess," a term that is both employed in the play and one we
are supposed to reject. We also learn early on, in Candy’s song about
the secret lives of girls, her sense of an inner mettle that is
by her patriarchal community.
Candy seems like an uncomplicated woman. Disappointed in her marriage,
she considers retreating with happy memories into a tower.
Candy’s work outside her home begins predictably enough with
for her Hadassah (a women’s organization named for Esther), but she
becomes more politically active when she is invited to work for the
political candidate Carol O’Banyon, a Bella Abzug-type figure enamored
of flashy hats. This leads to the show’s major subplot about the
industry in both its legal and illegal faces. This manufactured crisis
has been chosen to give Candy the sense that "this is her moment
to make a difference."
The plot encompasses biographies of Candy’s mother, father, and two
brothers. Yet the other key player is Orpheo Pastafino, a casino king
and mobster, who met and bonded with Candy’s father during World War
II. After her father’s death, Candy turns to "Uncle Orpheo"
for advice and support.
Gradually, particularly during Act II, "The Book of Candy’s"
plot atomizes into multiple subplots, from Candy’s affair with an
Israeli laborer to her reunion with her estranged brother and her
husband’s professional and romantic battles.
And despite my retrospective sense of the show’s narrative flaws,
individual scenes are brilliantly wrought. The young Candy’s Manhattan
shopping trip with her feisty mother, Maida, is a gem, a platform
for a woman’s words of wisdom accumulated over a lifetime. We learn
Maida’s prescription of a lifetime of dieting for the privileged but
"genetically portly" Jewess. And for purposes of
"it helps to marry an irreplaceable doctor." Most important,
however, is Maida’s dictum: "Don’t ignore a dangerous
something she learned the hard way when a neighbor was beaten to death
by her husband.
Gradually Candy’s determination "to make a difference" leads
her to trade her philandering husband for a near-incestuous place
next to the racketeer "Uncle Orpheo." "Am I a harlot or
a martyr?" Candy asks us in her final song. Despite Dworkin’s
best efforts, the question is one of many that remain unanswered.
— Nicole Plett
Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton, 609-392-0766. $20 & $25.
to October 28.
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