The Goodman’s been doing a great job of putting diverse ethnic voices onstage. Last season ended with Boleros for the Disenchanted, José Rivera’s sweet, sad look at the consequences of leaving Puerto Rico for the American mainland. Just before that came Ghostwritten, Naomi Iizuka’s fairy-tale treatment of the tangled human—and culinary—relations between the United States and Vietnam. And last November there was Ruined, a devastating piece of work by African-American writer Lynn Nottage about walking casualties of the permanent war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Commissioned by the Goodman, Ruined went on to win the 2009 Pulitzer for best drama.) Even Irish Catholics got significant play at the theater, what with the international Eugene O’Neill fest.
Now it seems artistic director Robert Falls and company have decided it’s time the Jews got a turn. Or two turns, really.
The new season’s opener was Animal Crackers, which conjured the antic spirits of the Marx Brothers by way of a 1928 musical comedy written by George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, Bert Kalmar, and Harry Ruby—Jews all—that features a song rhyming “explorer” with “shnorer.” The production was a marvel, though it would’ve worked better as a gesture of inclusion if the Goodman hadn’t chosen to set its premiere in the middle of Yom Kippur.
The second turn? Something less than a marvel. It’s a new two-act by Alan Gross called High Holidays.
If you’ve been around Chicago theater long enough, you may remember Gross from when he was going to be David Mamet, only funnier. His comedy Lunching was a big hit in 1977. He’s written some other plays, but High Holidays is his first in a long time, a fictionalized memoir of growing up in Skokie—here, for some reason, called Iroquois—during the Kennedy era.
Billy Roman is the Alan Gross figure of the piece: a hulking, lonely 13-year-old who loves to fantasize about quarterbacking for the Bears but can’t master the Torah portion he’s been assigned for his bar mitzvah, coming up in a mere two months, at the end of November 1963. Billy’s dad, Nate, is a World War II vet who saw action at the Battle of the Bulge but now works miserably for his own, domineering father in a west-side shoe store. His mom, Essie, is a homemaker with a sharp mouth and nice bossa nova moves. They both worry that Billy’s slow.
The kid’s also got an 18-year-old brother—formerly Bobby, now Rob—who’s been down in Bloomington at Illinois State University, learning folk music, vegetarianism, and pot. Radicalized Rob’s visit home for Rosh Hashanah triggers confrontations that will blow a gaping hole in this nuclear family’s cell wall.
High Holidays is a horrible play in a hundred ways, but it’s amazingly precise as a work of ethnography. Like Gross, I’m a local boy in my 50s, and like Billy Roman, I was brought up in a workaday milieu by second-generation American Jews who were born in Chicago, came of age during the Depression, lacked college degrees, and spoke lots of Yiddish. The points of intersection between this fictional family and my own are not just numerous but uncanny. Things I thought were unique to my experience—favorite words, inflections, references, the sly, humorous way my parents flirted with each other, my olfactory image of my dad as an amalgam of tobacco, Old Spice, and Pontiac—all turn out to be part of the culture.
The Romans’ down-putting, vulgar way of talking to one another is familiar too. But they take it to a traumatic extreme. My mom was perfectly capable of saying something awful while giving me a kiss on the head, but she’d never promise to cut a football up into little pieces and stuff those pieces up her kid’s ass, like Essie does. Or use a yiddishism to call him a mental defective, like Nate does.
Nate and Essie’s verbal brutality is so pervasive that it’s easy to fixate on it as the source of what’s wrong with High Holidays. But it isn’t. Or more accurately, it is only to the extent that Gross has an ambivalent relationship to it. Early on, Billy’s so cowed by his mother’s tirades that he stutters when he talks to her; before long, though, that’s somehow forgotten and he’s as eloquently snotty as any adolescent.
No, what’s wrong with High Holidays is that Gross and director Steven Robman clearly think that Billy is its main character and his imminent bar mitzvah its subject. They signal as much by giving him a closing monologue, which includes a gee-whiz reversal.
Neither Gross nor Robman has stepped away from the material far enough to realize that High Holidays‘ real subject is the oedipal triangle between Nate, Essie, and Rob. Gross knows it’s there: one of the few moving moments in the play is a conversation between Essie and a drunken Nate in which he talks about it. But Gross’s script fails to put this glaring bit of dysfunction at the center of things. As a result, everything’s farkakt—structure, characterizations, everything. And we end up with over two and a half hours of anguished dialogue, threats, and violence about nothing more compelling than a bar mitzvah.