Next Theatre Company

The Lomans never struck me as necessarily Jewish. What is most powerful about Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is its universality–it’s been performed successfully all around the globe, even in China. But there’s no mistaking the ethnic origins of the characters in Donald Margulies’s The Loman Family Picnic. From the “oys” to the chopped liver to the strains of “Havah Nagilah” playing in the background, we know exactly where we are. But The Loman Family Picnic isn’t just for Jewish audiences; I have a feeling that anti-Semites might enjoy it as well.

A certain bitterness pervades Margulies’s play, which includes a couple of truly tasteless references to Kristallnacht and how terrible a relative who endured the concentration camps looks at a buffet table. Worse, in his effort to deconstruct the classic image of the American Jewish family, Margulies shows us the underside of sitcom characters instead of real human beings. Clearly a gifted dramatist, Margulies shortchanges his own talent by stooping to stereotypes. The Loman Family Picnic seeks to tell us that there is a lot more going on under the surface of the Jewish family than Neil Simon comedies might lead us to believe. This is not a surprise.

We open with Doris, a Brooklyn mom who’s busy slicing away at her wedding dress to make a Halloween Bride of Frankenstein costume. Doris lives with her schlepp of a husband, Herbie, and her two precocious sons, Stewie and Mitchell. Herbie kvetches about work. Stewie kvetches about Hebrew school and all the nonsense Hebrew words he has to memorize for his bar mitzvah. Doris, subtly kvetching, tells the audience about how happy she is. Meanwhile young Mitchell is working on a creative report for his sixth-grade English class–a loosely autobiographical musical version of Death of a Salesman showing the brighter side of the Lomans’ life.

The first act lays the groundwork for conflict. Herbie’s jealous of the attention his boys get from Doris. Stewie thinks his dad is a major loser. Doris tries to escape her dull, miserable life by having imaginary conversations with her beautiful older sister Marsha, who lived fast and died young. And Mitchell strives to keep the family together. Tempers flare in the second act when Stewie refuses to turn over his bar mitzvah loot to his dad, who needs the gelt to pay off the exorbitant bar mitzvah tab. Mom takes her boy’s side in the argument and Herbie storms out, only to come back later for a subdued reconciliation.

Margulies apparently understands that he’s on familiar ground and tries to cloak the banality of his play with gimmicks. In a surreal sequence, Herbie and Doris tell each other what they will look like when they die. While we see staged photographs of the happy family being taken at the bar mitzvah, we hear the characters’ thoughts (“Do you know how much this cost me?”). When Herbie returns home, we’re offered a number of different ways the scene could play before we see “what really happened.” The best gimmick of all is a musical sequence that gives us a short look at Mitchell’s loopy musical Salesman! in which the Lomans plan to go to the park for a picnic.

The most successful scene in Margulies’s drama comes in the middle of the second act, when we see Herbie’s shame at having to ask his son for money and hear how unappreciated and unloved the man feels. The emotions here are real and the anger is palpable, but they come too late. Too many of the scenes leading up to this climax are phony. The “witty” repartee and Jewish shtick are of sub-Golden Girls caliber, and the overly cute young boys look ready for a sitcom spin-off any day.

For someone like me, who grew up kvetching about Hebrew school to parents who went through the Depression, this is the sort of play that should strike uncomfortably close to home, but I remained uninvolved. The references to Jewish culture ring false, and the constant harping on how much things cost smells of cheap Jew stereotypes. If I’d grown up in the Bible Belt thinking most Jews were neurotic overachievers obsessed with money and food, I’d find little in The Loman Family Picnic to change my view.

Some of the performers in Next Theatre’s production are fun to watch. Young actors Timothy Ferrin as Mitchell and Shale Marks as Stewie are certainly talented and entertaining, though I couldn’t help thinking that they’d have more fun going to the park and playing Wiffle ball than staying up on school nights to perform in this flawed play. The best performance, though, comes from Daniel Ruben as Herbie: his frustration and anger give The Loman Family Picnic most of its genuinely human touches. Ruben rises above the stereotypes–something Margulies seems less inclined to do.