KPBS AIRDATE: JULY 2001
There’s an old story about North Coast Repertory Theatre. During a string of Neil Simon hits, the playwright’s brother, Danny Simon, was in the audience. After one of his brother’s especially autobiographical works, he is purported to have exclaimed, ‘Why do they always make my mother into a blonde shiksa?’
Well, they’ve done it again. Different playwright, same problem. Pulitzer Prize-winner Donald Margulies’ comedy asks, “What’s Wrong with this Picture?” The answer here is, it’s a frankly Jewish play in a very goyish production. If you don’t know what that means, go, enjoy, you should live and be well, you’ll love it. But me, I winced more than I laughed — from the mangled Yiddish pronunciations, the misguided New York dialect, the whole non-New York, non-Jewish rhythm of the thing. It’s like watching Shakespeare in bad English accents, you should pardon the comparison. It affects the pace, the flow, the poetry, even the theme. And so it goes. This is an early effort by Margulies, who has a handy knack for making theatergoers think. In this case, he’s focused on family relations, especially fathers and sons, and more generically, how to survive a dear one’s death and go on.
Guest director Carolyn Keith is making her North Coast Rep debut, and her eye shows promise, if not her ear. Some of her cast fares better than others. A last-minute replacement was Paula Pierson, who was apparently brought in from some Pete Gurney play about Midwest WASPs. Her timing is so off, she sucks the life and humor out of every scene she’s in. Ruff Yeager is a thoroughly credible grieving husband, but an Italian one. There’s a fine line between New York Italians and Jews, but there is a line, though it’s not discernible here. Jill Drexler is also believable, although a bit more Noel Coward than Donald Margulies, as the breezy, beautiful wife who comes back from the dead after choking on a piece of mu shu pork, and sending her family into a tailspin. The two most completely convincing characterizations here are James Luster as the deceased’s smart-alecky son and the uproarious Jeanne Danis as his kvetchy grandmother.
The play itself is a problem — a hysterically funny comedy rife with Simonesque one-liners in the first act (even if it is set at the end of the ‘shiva’ mourning period, in Marty Burnett’s painstakingly detailed Brooklyn apartment). But then, the second act makes a sharp turn into more serious territory, providing a veritable primer in the stages of grief. Overall, in this production, it’s more Oh my! than Oy vey!
©2001 Patté Productions Inc.