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Theater Review

Nostalgia, Tradition Fill 'Jewish' Trilogy

October 16, 1998|F. KATHLEEN FOLEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The three plays in Israel Horovitz's "Growing Up Jewish," now being presented in repertory at the Fountain Theatre, range from the lightweight to the profound. Cumulatively, they afford a watershed perspective of the Jewish experience that is painfully nostalgic.

All three pieces trace the foibles and fortunes of two Jewish families--the Yanovers and the Rosens--during, and directly after, World War II. Horovitz's milieu, the womb-like Canadian town of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, is deliberately microcosmic, an impenetrable bastion of peace and relative prosperity, stirred but not shaken by the distant echoes of the Holocaust.

Director Hope Alexander-Willis, who helms the trilogy, has made the prolific Horovitz something of a vocation. Their recent collaborations include the comic gem "Fighting Over Beverley" at the Fountain and the harrowing family drama "Unexpected Tenderness" at the Strasberg, both of which enjoyed long runs.

Simultaneously mounting three plays must have been daunting, and Alexander-Willis' staging here is more rough-edged than those consummately polished productions, but it is invariably exuberant and likable, as is her cast.

T. Henry Amitai, an elderly actor with his roots in the Yiddish theater, recurs throughout in several comic roles. The heart of the play and an exponent of enduring tradition, Amitai's main character Jacob Ardenshensky banters genially with the audience before and after each play.

*

The somewhat shaky opener, "Today, I Am a Fountain Pen," set in 1941, suffered particularly from opening-night jitters. Ten-year-old Irving Yanover (Max Freedman) has problems: a yen for bacon and a crush on the family's shiksa live-in Annie Ilchak (Sharon Bart)--both forbidden tastes for a young Jewish boy. Irving collides with a double-standard when he learns that his "kosher" parents, Esther and Moses (Susan Merson and Barry Kramer), ingest bacon regularly at a Chinese eatery.

Horovitz raises the stakes on his slight opener by having Annie get pregnant by her Italian boyfriend Pete (David Mendenhall), whom she has been forbidden to see by her Ukrainian father Emil (Time Winters). But the social foment of the war years dictates that Emil's Old World prejudices give way to a new order and a happy ending.

The prejudices of the Old World aren't as easily dismissed in "A Rosen by Any Other Name," the middle and best piece, in which an otherwise reasonable man is reduced to blind eccentricity by dread. The time is 1943, and Barney Rosen (Winters), rattled by the vague reports of Nazi atrocities filtering back from the front, determines to change his family name--from Rosen to the "safer" sounding Royal. Barney's son Stanley (Gabriel Luque) and wife Pearl (Jacqueline Schultz) balk, and the conflict that results casts a pall on Stanley's upcoming bar mitzvah--a comically extravagant affair featuring a chopped-liver bust of Stanley himself.

Hilarious but gut-wrenching, the formidable Winters wears the glazed, intent expression of a man listening for storm troopers' footsteps at his door. Also perfectly cast, Schultz and Luque complete this achingly believable family unit. This is comedy with a vengeance, reverberating with the tension of denial and the unknown.

Set in the economic boom of 1947, the funny, frivolous final offering, "The Chopin Playoffs," culminates the series on a note of hopeful hilarity. Irving Yanover (Ben Diskin) and Stanley Rosen (Steven Amato), archrivals since childhood, furiously compete for the same fickle girl--Fern Phipps (the able Bart). The acrimony mounts apace, between both the boys and their parents, when Stanley and Irving compete in a high-stakes piano contest--winner take all, including girl.

This is flat-out, no-bones slapstick, and the actors, particularly Amato as the comically hormonal Stanley, hit their full stride here. However, "Chopin" is deceptively fluffy. Peace and prosperity also bring hints of conspicuous consumption and rampant materialism, profound threats to a thrifty and abstemious people.

Victoria Profitt's set, vividly dressed by Eileen's Prop Shop, Lane Fragomeli's costumes complete with fedoras and spectator pumps, Rand Ryan's mellow lighting and Charles Dayton's sound design complete this period portrait of a beleaguered but ever-resilient culture.

* "Growing Up Jewish," Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood. Thursdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 3 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 and 7 p.m. Consult Sunday Calendar listings or call for play schedule. $20. (213) 663-1525. Ends Dec. 6. Running time of each play: Approximately 2 hours.

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