National Jewish Theater

The ground covered in Telegram From Heaven–the travails of a Jewish family in New York during World War II–has by now been trod into tiny clumps, in works from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to more recent fare like Woody Allen’s Radio Days and Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers. The elements seem to form a cultural family album: love furtively snatched before war can kill it off; women finding new power in their first jobs; constant scraping, and the urge to spend since tomorrow is so uncertain; and near nostalgia for the poverty of that time. In adapting her father Arnold Manoff’s 1942 novel, actress Dinah Manoff and coadapter Dennis Bailey have had to be true to the ethos of half a century ago and come to grips with our expectations of memory plays–a familiarity that breeds, if not contempt, at least lots of comparisons.

Though Telegram, being staged by National Jewish Theater, is heartfelt, well observed, and convincing, it’s far from the best of the genre: today its coming-of-age saga seems massively predetermined. Manoff’s protagonist, Sylvia Singer, has the cards strategically stacked against her–bogged down in a simple struggle for survival in the east Bronx and bereft of any trust in the world or cause to live for, she seems old before her time. Which all but guarantees an upbeat ending.

Sylvia’s boyfriend Paul is a feckless drifter who works for the WPA; Sylvia’s attempts to meet wilder guys founder on their sheer obnoxiousness. Her resentful mother Rose is rooted in a deep funk, dreaming only of setting up an illegal gambling parlor. Sylvia’s smart-aleck younger brother Alex is intent on becoming either a gambling shark or jazz saxophonist. Her girlfriend Francey pretends to be fast, but this mantrap turns out to be just as ignorant about sex and men as many other girls in this unschooled era. All too certainly, Sylvia and Paul finally find common cause, not just in their easily predicted love but in their will to destroy the Nazis. Here the novel’s wooden propagandistic side shows through all too clearly. The “telegram from heaven” comes from, of all creatures, Adolf Hitler. (Sounds more like a telegram from hell.)

Telegram doesn’t build scenes through conflict or crisis–it craves our unconditional sympathy for the often self-pitying Sylvia. Nor does Manoff lighten Sylvia’s character with humor. As played by Shannon Branham, she’s as raw as broken bricks and as vulnerable as first love, “a female cactus in a sea of slacks.” Branham gives Sylvia enough spunk to balance the glumness, but the deliberate pace of Valerie Landsburg’s staging never lets the part catch fire; worse, that pace allows the cliches, sloganeering, and symbols to stand out when they should be downplayed.

Sylvia seems no less crushed by calamity than her mother, played by Susan Philpot with so much resignation it restricts her range. Kenny Williams as klutzy Paul is unpretentious to the point of self-effacement, but the salt-of-the-earth solidity and grace he gives him is in cunning contrast to the oiliness of Richard Wharton as an optometrist, one of Sylvia’s many romantic dead ends.

Warmer are the rather undeveloped supporting roles. Krista Lally, whose Francey at first seems a crude fusion of Dumb Dora and Betty Boop, in the second act dramatically deepens this good-time girl. Anthony Bravo, an impressive teenager with strong instincts and complete confidence, plays the brother with an energy that lifts every scene he’s in; so does Roslyn Alexander with her feisty “penny poker madame.” (The fact that the character comes out of nowhere and goes nowhere bothers us only later.) As an understanding soda-fountain proprietor, Wantland L. Sandel Jr. nicely suggests the rest of the Bronx.

The palpably nostalgic cutaway set by Richard and Jacqueline Penrod evokes a less-is-more world with the myriad details of a 1941 soda fountain/cigar store and the obligatory rooftop trysting place. Claudia Boddy’s costumes suggest the era’s B-movies, and Todd Hensley’s strategically soft lighting bathes everything in a golden glow.