National Jewish Theater

Journalists have been quick to label it the “greed decade,” but I still think of the 80s as the time when all America became obsessed with remaking the country in the image of some idealized past. While Europe and Asia went about the business of preparing for the new century, we battled over which past decade the new America would most closely resemble.

Those on the right preferred to make America over in the image of a decade of prosperous Republicanism–the 20s or the 50s. Those of us on the left preferred an activist, left-leaning decade–the 30s or the 60s. The decade pined for, however, mattered less than the fact of pining. This national pastime seemed a mass regression, an attempt to return to some long-gone world.

Ira Levin’s Cantorial, begun in l980 and completed during the early part of the decade, is very much a product of its time. The play is so filled with yearning for the past that it literally features a voice that cries in Hebrew, “Build your house the way it was!”

The voice belongs to a long-dead cantor who haunts a home that was, until very recently, a tiny synagogue. Now the Lower East Side building belongs to a young couple: Leslie is Jewish, Warren’s a goy. They are so quintessentially l980s-style upwardly mobile–he works for Shearson Lehman selling futures, she works in public relations for Harper & Row–that they seem more than a little dated.

Levin’s script is well written but ever so slightly stereotypical. That Leslie and Warren come off as anything deeper than yet another yuppie couple has more to do with Jeff Ginsberg’s intelligent direction. His instinct for avoiding stereotypes is unfailing; even the little Jewish man (named Morris, no less) who owns the deli across the street comes off as an original. Ginsberg has also cast two fine actors, Christopher Howe and Peggy Goss, as the central couple.

Wanting only to live in their 80s version of peace and prosperity, these two are understandably unnerved when they discover their home is haunted by a cantor who sings day and night and, when he isn’t singing, shouts “Build your house the way it was!” Soon it becomes clear that the only way to silence the cantor is to do his bidding.

Ironically, it’s the goy, not the girl, who responds to the dead cantor’s pleas. With the help of the deli owner, Warren sets about returning the building to its former glory, removing the couple’s entertainment center from the ark and recovering the railings and the candelabras that had been sold to a junk dealer. Warren finds the restoration more fulfilling than he had dreamed possible. Of course it satisfies those two great needs of the 80s: (l) it creates some connection to the past, however fleeting and ultimately inauthentic, and (2) it supplies something to believe in, no matter how unbelievable the demands of this “higher authority,” who may be a spokesmodel president, an enigmatic “inner voice,” or a bullying cantor’s ghost.

Warren is looking for a daddy. And he finds daddies in spades. At various times in the story, Morris, the ghost cantor, and even Warren’s real father dispense fatherly advice and bark out orders (which may or may not be followed).

The parallels with the film Field of Dreams–another work about finding daddy figures–are striking. Not only do both Warren and the Field of Dreams hero respond to similar prophetic voices, but the very messages are much alike: “Build it, and he will come,” and “Build your house the way it was.” Both works also depend upon “magical thinking” to try to bring about reconciliations with the hero’s father. Kevin Costner builds a baseball diamond. Warren turns his home into a house of prayer. And both works turn on the very 80s idea that one can make anything happen if one just believes hard enough.

However, of the two works, Levin’s play is the more honest–or at least it’s better grounded in reality. (As the writer of such horror stories as Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, Levin knows full well the importance of keeping one foot firmly planted at all times in the real world.) Warren’s wife cannot understand her husband’s obsession, worries that he is damaging his career, and suggests therapy. Then she leaves him. In Field of Dreams, Amy Madigan just smiles a sweet, indulgent mother’s smile when her husband tells her his mad plans. Eventually even the kindly Morris calls Warren meshuga–crazy–when he discovers the boy plans to reopen the synagogue, invite the dispersed old members to return, and offers the position of rabbi to Morris.

Which brings us to the crux of Levin’s play: Warren, like the good, essentially rootless and confused citizen of the 80s that he is, finds more solace in denying reality and creating his own fictional heritage than in discovering the truth about himself and his “people.” We really begin to doubt Warren’s sanity when we see how desperate he becomes to establish Jewish roots, going so far as to conjure up a Jewish mother–since he was adopted, he argues, his mother could have been anyone. He wants a rational reason for turning his home into a house of prayer. Words can’t describe Warren’s disappointment when he discovers that his adoptive father–whom Warren has rejected, and who’s as middle-class and midwestern a Protestant as you are likely to find anywhere–is really his natural father.

Thomas Disch, in his Nation review of last year’s off-Broadway production of Cantorial, dubbed the play assimilationist–though “it’s the goy who’s assimilated.” But Levin’s point is deeper than this old melting-pot chestnut. The play is about that much older American theme: how we all re-create ourselves here in the New World. When Warren spins a Jewish heritage out of thin air, he’s just acting out the traditions of his Protestant ancestors, who came to this country, poor and yearning, and promptly tossed away their pasts as cobblers, corset makers, or common criminals to set about making themselves into the new men and women of this the New Jerusalem.

Who cares whether Warren follows his gut or the dictates of a ghost cantor? What matters is that he attains those twin indications of grace in America: he does what he likes, and he gets the heritage he’s always wanted.

Ginsberg’s excellent National Jewish Theater production emphasizes all that’s good in Levin’s finely crafted script. (It’s remarkable how little sentimentality there is in Cantorial’s satisfying story.) Even though it’s clear from the get-go that Warren is a sick puppy, Levin holds out the hope that, by persisting in his folly, Warren will achieve some degree of wisdom. And that is a consolation for any educated but essentially rootless urbanite. Warren may be obsessive, but he’s one of us.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lisa Ebright.