21/2 Jews

Apple Tree Theatre

By Kelly Kleiman

Fathers and sons seem to have gotten more than their share of attention on prominent Chicago stages this year. The Goodman inaugurated its new theater with August Wilson’s King Hedley II. Victory Gardens contributed two pieces, Javon Johnson’s Hambone (African-American fathers and sons) and Jeffrey Sweet’s The Action Against Sol Schumann (Jewish-American fathers and sons). Chicago Shakespeare Theater even managed to produce a King Lear about fathers and sons instead of the usual daughters.

In Apple Tree’s entry, three generations of Jewish men play out the competition and unspoken pride, the demands and disappointments, of the father-son relationship. Unfortunately 21/2 Jews–the maiden effort of 78-year-old playwright Alan Brandt–suggests that the subject has been pretty well exhausted. Though wonderfully performed and filled with clever dialogue, the show has no momentum. Instead of a play we get a series of scenes, each fairly enjoyable–but they don’t add up to a whole.

In lieu of a plot Brandt has provided two themes: the way fathers and sons disappoint one another and the way men disappoint themselves. These are powerful issues, also present in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, perhaps the archetypal play about Jewish fathers and sons. But they don’t excuse the playwright from the task of telling a story. The mere existence of Morris Minter, a retired pattern cutter, his civil-liberties lawyer son Nathan, and Nathan’s corporate lawyer son Mark doesn’t suffice.

The play opens with Morris in a police-station interview room explaining to Nathan how and why he got arrested for urinating in front of a fancy restaurant. Though the scene is much longer than necessary to establish the characters or their relationship, it’s fun to watch because the actors–Nathan Davis and Gary Houston–go to town. As Morris, Davis turns on a dime from borscht belt shtick to Talmudic wisdom. He handles the role flawlessly, describing a female police officer as a “cop-ess” with just the right air of stubborn confusion and explaining with affecting (if affected) innocence how he had to use the bushes because he “couldn’t avoid voiding.”

The opening suggests that the play is a farce about Nathan’s defense of Morris on indecent exposure charges. But then Nathan gets a call from his wife, which he ignores, and Morris urges him to pay more attention to her. So we expect Nathan to start grappling with his marriage, but the scene ends without his doing so, and by the next, his wife has left him. She’s not even the subject of Nathan’s battle with his son Mark (Joe Dempsey), which focuses on his career and life choices. And by the third scene–which opens act two (they could skip the intermission)–Nathan is divorced. The topic is once again marriage, though not his marriage, and the subject is not neglect but religious and ethnic prejudice. So what is the play about? It’s a tale of expectations disappointed and thus passed along–but what exactly is the tale?

The play’s difficulties seem to stem from Brandt’s choices about what action and characters to keep offstage. In the second scene, Nathan and Mark discuss preparing for a marathon. Nathan is obviously suffering because Mark is outpacing him and also advancing in the legal profession without his help. The context and Nathan’s advice are reminiscent of Willy Loman practicing football with Biff in Death of a Salesman while stressing the importance of being “well liked.” Miller later shows us Loman’s betrayal of Biff, but we never see any of the actions for which Brandt’s characters blame one another. Moreover, Miller gives Loman’s wife a chance to speak for herself about her husband: “Attention must be paid!” The pivotal female character in 21/2 Jews–Nathan’s wife, Mark’s mother, and Morris’s beloved daughter-in-law–never appears, leaving a hole at the play’s center. With no one to mediate or comment on the men’s relationships, the playwright is forced to have everyone say whatever he’s feeling, which is unbelievable (as when Nathan comes to an epiphany in a matter of seconds at the end), or to leave those relationships unresolved, which is frustrating.

Brandt may well want to say everything he has to say in this one play. He offers his opinions about selling out to a corporate law firm, about Ronald Reagan, about the need to tend to a marriage, about the need to accept things that are painful. He offers mostly worthy insights, but they don’t exactly come together. Certainly director Stevi Marks hasn’t found the play’s through line–if there is one. Her direction is serviceable, though she shows a mysterious passion for turning Houston three-quarters away from the audience. Rich Winship’s set has an elegant economy: the shades in the interview room come up to reveal lockers in a gym and back down to create Morris’s apartment.

Brandt’s dialogue gives each actor the chance to own the stage, and each of the performers in this production takes full advantage. Davis’s ability to shift effortlessly between comedy and drama and his skill at underplaying high emotion serve him well. He invests the stereotype that is Morris with his own dignity and makes it work. Houston is admirable as Nathan, squeezed between what he needs from and owes his father and what he needs from and owes his son. The actor provides a strong sense of how much Nathan has to prove and how much it costs him. He also handles the play’s overuse of telephone calls with a persuasive grace. I just have to ask, though: why do people keep casting Houston as a Jew? Though he manages the inflections pretty well, this blond man with an Anglo-Scandinavian face looks like the half-Jew of the title–if that. Dempsey does well with the relatively thankless role of Nathan’s son, relishing the opportunities to zing his father.

Like Morris, Brandt is an able cutter of familiar patterns. The piece shows enormous promise: is it too much to hope that a 78-year-old playwright is at work on another?

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