National Jewish Theater

When a comedian attempts a work of “serious” drama, watch out. There is nothing worse than a funny person trying to create art with a capital A. More often than not the result is something less honest, less true, and considerably less successful artistically than the comic’s earlier funnier work. Compare Woody Allen’s Interiors with Annie Hall or Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight with Modern Times.

So when a man as naturally funny as Shelley Berman attempts, in the words of the National Jewish Theater’s press release, “a drama about the trials of a Jewish immigrant [family] . . . on Chicago’s West Side in 1919,” there is reason to worry that yet another comedian is going to turn out yet another stillborn “serious” work. But he hasn’t. Because Berman, unlike legions of comedians before him, has not been fooled into thinking that he should repress his comic gifts to write something serious. Indeed, he uses comedy throughout First Is Supper, and in the process has created a work that is both moving and genuinely funny.

More impressive still is the way Berman–in his first play, no less–has a created a dramatic work in which humor is not imposed on the story by the playwright (as in Neil Simon’s early funny but emotionally shallow plays) but rather arises naturally from his characters and the play’s action. Of course it helps that he has populated his play with characters who use humor throughout their lives as a major defense against their misfortunes.

So we have Lotte, the downstairs neighbor who vents her frustration by hurling self-consciously absurd Yiddish curses, meant only half in jest: “He should catch fire.” “An unusual death on him.” She also makes ironic comments about herself: “Cursing is the art of the Jewish woman.” She calls her teenage daughter, who insists on being called Rocky instead of Rachel in the hope that she will pass in gentile society, “My daughter the Jew hater” and says, “There goes Rocky. The Italian girl with the Jewish mother.” Of course all the characters in Berman’s play–except poor Rosey, the retarded daughter, and Ida, whose adolescent problems have robbed her of perspective–have sharp eyes for the absurdity of their lives and equally sharp tongues. Even preadolescent Solly has the comic sense of a budding stand-up.

Berman’s comedy is all the richer because he doesn’t go for the laughs (again unlike Simon) but focuses on meticulously developing remarkably stereotype-free characters. So real are Berman’s portraits that by the end of the play we feel we know his characters as well as (or better than) our own families.

Though the characters are often supposed to be speaking Yiddish, they don’t actually. But Berman has created a convention to indicate when they would be–their English sounds slightly stilted, as if it had been badly translated: “Be a nice boy and make open the window.” “I am having downstairs dinner.” So successful is this device that in a key scene in which the father’s gentile business associate has dinner with the family, the conversation switches back and forth from English to Yiddish, and we in the audience never lose track of which language is being spoken.

Berman has a gift for realistically re-creating the years just after World War I. Equally remarkable is the fact that he portrays this all too often sentimentalized period without a hint of sickeningly sweet nostalgia. In fact, one of the messages of Berman’s play is that these were not simpler, happier times. To his credit, Berman never flinches at revealing the darker side of life in the Marks household. The father, for example, is a hot-tempered shouter who clearly would beat his wife if she weren’t as strong, stubborn, and tough as he is. “The days began and ended with shouting,” one character reminisces. “God forbid a person might hear his heart beating.” Hardly the words of a sentimentalist.

Berman’s strong script is complemented well by Terry McCabe’s fine direction and excellent cast, who seem equally at home with Berman’s comic and more serious sides. Josette DiCarlo could not be better in the role of Frieda Marks, the tough immigrant mother; her performance is miles ahead of her broad and very unfunny role in Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. Marilynn Bogetich is wonderful as Lotte, and Fredric Stone deserves praise for his portrayal of the unlikable patriarch Getz Marks.

Watching Berman’s play reminded me that most often people cope with adversity in one of three ways: some deny its existence (like Alfred E. Neuman or Ronald Reagan), some grimly face it square on (like Sisyphus or Mother Courage), and some crack jokes. Shelley Berman has written an exquisite play about the third group–those who laugh to keep from crying.