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By Robert W. Bethune, guest critic
The Jewish Ensemble Theatre opens 2007 with the world premiere of “It Should Be” by Ted Herstand, in a production directed by the playwright. A nostalgic portrayal of Jewish life in the 1930s in New York, the characters and situations are familiar. Most prominently, we have the matriarch of the family, played by Evelyn Orbach, presiding with loving manipulativeness over three generations, soon to become four, all living in one run-down apartment in the Bronx. It says something about the play that she is known only as Mama, just as her husband, played with perpetual bemusement by Loren Bass, is known only as Papa.
The production includes a number of nicely realized comic moments, particularly Rachel Allison’s entrance as Sister after spending the day learning what the real world of hard, dirty, physical work is like. Good things come out of the small roles, particularly Inga Wilson’s brief scene as Cecily Smith, the Gentile woman that Benny, the ambitious young man of the family, marries. She conveys very well her anxiety and fear, balanced by hoping against hope for acceptance. She does it with very little dialogue, or even movement, to work with.
The strongest element of the play is command of dialect. Given the setting, one expects a great deal of Yiddish-English dialect, and that way of speaking – so firmly fixed in our minds as a characteristic of the people, place and time – is well realized. There are also interesting variations; the character of Herman Berger, played with a nicely comical touch by Marty Bufalini, speaks in a rather remarkable patois of over-elaborated English built of comically over-formalized phrases, such as those in which “women” become something like “persons appropriately referred to as being in the female category.” It is a small but telling touch that the bright young man of the family speaks in a completely undialectical way, as fits his effort to break out of the milieu that is also his home.
The weakest elements of the play are lack of originality and lack of commitment to the material. Its characters, situations, story elements and themes are very familiar from a wide range of plays and literature about Jewish life of that time and place. Although it is not done badly here, it has been done before, and done better, in other plays, novels and movies. The play needs to make better decisions about people and events. Yes, it’s a comedy, but every good comedy is about something that matters very much. This play takes situations that do matter a great deal–an imminent threat of eviction, marriage outside the faith–and rather than finding truly telling comic resolutions for them, merely defangs them through empty plot devices, particularly what can only be described as deus ex department store. And one key performer seemed plagued by uncertainty about lines, which contributed to a sense that key comic moments needed tighter writing.
Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company at the Aaron DeRoy Theatre on the campus of the Jewish Community Center, 6600 West Maple Road, West Bloomfield. Wed., Thu., Sat. & Sun, through Feb. 18. Tickets: $32-$39. For information: (248) 788-2900 or http://www.jettheatre.org