National Jewish Theater

If life really is “one damn thing after another” and change the only constant, then characters in fiction, no less than real people, face a choice: they can either resist or exploit the waiting game–or just lay low and hope luck will govern chance.

Acceptance, resistance, and exploitation are the not-so-secret ingredients in The Magic Barrel and Other Stories, a well-crafted evening of active story telling from the National Jewish Theater. Adapted and directed by Arnold Aprill in chamber theater style (the narration split among the characters), the three stories are performed on the various levels of Jacqueline and Richard Penrod’s set of converging staircases (beautifully lit by Larry Schoeneman). Two of the tales (they’re all set in the early 50s) focus on two very troubled protagonists and the third on an antagonist who isn’t troubled enough; two of them end in what James Joyce called an “epiphany,” a moment of truth, when the past or the future suddenly crystallizes before an astonished character. When they surprise audiences as well, epiphanies make terrific theater.

The least successful of the three is Stanley Elkin’s “Criers and Kibitzers, Kibitzers and Criers.” In it, Jake Greenspahn, a south-side grocery-store owner, comes to terms with the loss of his 23-year-old son Harold, who has just died. For Jake life can’t just go on; his dammed-up grief over the son he idealizes poisons everything around him. Constantly on edge, he’s furious that life continues just as before. He begins to suspect his employees of ripping him off or fornicating during the lunch hour. He snaps at customers and drives them away. With the cruel objectivity of the bereaved, Jake now sees the other neighborhood shop owners as either complainers (criers) or as kidders, cheaters, and braggarts (kibitzers); they all need each other like a fix, but bitter Jake needs nobody.

The only way Jake can unblock this rage is by seeing Harold as human and forgiving him for dying. Jake’s epiphany comes when he stumbles across a note, hastily written by Harold before he died. The note reveals the son’s imperfection and triggers a dream in which Jake forgives Harold for leaving him and thus overcomes his own inability to let go.

The problem with “Criers,” both the story and the telling, is Jake’s inner torment: it’s too much a given and not enough a shown. As Jake, Bernard Beck has the schizoid task of having to act out repression and denial; Beck’s eye-popping overreactions feel out of balance, even out of control. Happily, Elkin and Aprill steep Jake in a thick broth of stock characters–a doctor’s wife who breaks eggs and then demands a discount (Marge Kotlisky), a poor woman with a “fatuously red” wig who buys coffee on sale because it’s there (Laura Gordon), a store owner who lures in customers by insulting them through the window (Malcolm Rothman). The pungent, cumulative cameos carry more weight than all of Jake’s overwrought keening.

An almost predatory exploitation lies at the heart of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s hilarious “Fate.” At a plush Fifth Avenue cocktail party, a writer (Rothman) gets waylaid by a gabby, larger-than-life professional sufferer named Bessie Gold. In relentless installments this Jewish empress tells the writer the catastrophic story of her life, as if to prove “There was no limit to what I could suffer.”

Bessie first regales the writer with a cliche-ridden description of her impoverished childhood. Clawing her way up, she becomes a buyer for a big department store. Her first husband, a lazy stud, runs off with her jewels–but gives her a daughter, whom Bessie spoils rotten. The not surprisingly undutiful daughter rejects her mother and runs off with a Harvard graduate–and takes more of Bessie’s jewels. Bessie’s rich second husband drops dead at just the right time, leaving his favorite dog–who attacks Bessie. But don’t waste any sympathy on Bessie: it’s all part of her self-determined “fate,” something the now talked-to-death writer ruefully admits is exactly what Bessie wants. Alienating man and beast, Bessie lives only to set up her next martyrdom. But, she calmly confesses, “I trap others too.”

Moving from an ungirlish giggle to synthetic tears, marvelous Marge Kotlisky plays this merry widow spider with a delicious indulgence worthy of Bessie’s melodramatic self-pity, plus a cunning smile and a middle-aged ogle to die for. It’s a gem of Daumier-sharp caricature.

The Magic Barrel, the title story, is the most theatrical, the least static tale of the three. It’s Bernard Malamud’s compassionate portrait of Leo Finkle, a 27-year-old rabbinical student who’s searching for the perfect wife. Leo desperately consults Pinye Salzman, a pinched-faced, elaborately duplicitous marriage broker who boasts that he “makes practical the necessary without hindering joy” and owns a “magic barrel” full of resumes describing golden matrimonial prospects. Perfectionist Leo rejects most of the candidates as too old or experienced; the one he tries out, a solemn high school teacher named Lily Hershorn, proves to be interested more in faith than flesh. In despair Leo wonders how he can ever serve God if he can never find love.

Leo’s epiphany comes when he resolves to find “premarital love” on his own; he falls in love with a photo of the one woman Salzman does not want him to meet: the sinful Stella. She appears symbolically in a white dress with red shoes and a look in her eyes of “desperate innocence.” For the newly redeemed Leo marriage is no longer a question of dowries or domestic accomplishments. In love he feels the same calling he has in religion.

With its own magic barrel of deft acting, Aprill’s staging profits from skillful narrators and excellent work from Yuri Rasovsky as the marriage broker, a man of increasingly pointless deviousness, and Laura Gordon as the too prim and practical Lily. Chris Karchmar gives Leo the right earnest bafflement, but on opening night Karchmar seemed to lack concentration; at times he appeared to be smirking at his character. Especially when you’re playing with Malamud’s very real make-believe, you shouldn’t break the spell.

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