National Jewish Theater

The success of Neil Simon’s autobiographical plays–Brighton Beach Memoirs, etc–has prompted other comedy writers to talk about their families with only the thinnest veneer of literary camouflage. In The Songs of War it’s Murray Schisgal’s turn to accuse and forgive his parents–and in doing so perhaps exorcise the family ghosts and forgive himself too.

The narrator, Calvin Saks (nee Sakowitz), is a seasoned, successful performer of stage and screen both big and little–much as Schisgal is a seasoned and successful writer for these venues. On this evening Calvin/Schisgal proposes to determine once and for all which of his parents was responsible for his unhappy childhood and his emotionally crippled adulthood (evidenced by two broken marriages and one recently broken engagement). He feels that the answer lies in the events surrounding his enlistment in the Navy at the age of 16 in 1942. And with the assistance of popular songs from that era he sets up the milieu against which he–and we–will review, judge, and perhaps vindicate the Sakowitz family.

It’s not an easy call. Saul Sakowitz is a stolid and taciturn man, given to jeremiads on the state of the world and his place in it. Bertha Sakowitz is an energetic and extroverted woman, given to gambling the household money on the horses and devoting her time to bond drives and other war efforts–activities that take her out of the home and into the exciting, dangerous realm of patriotic fever and glamorous male strangers, like the warm and affectionate Roy Atkins. Saul and Bertha’s marriage has been more or less engineered by Zada–Bertha’s father and Saul’s boss–and time and two children have not created any special affection between them: they bicker every moment they’re together, forcing their distressed children to act as messengers for their rage. For example, “Tell your father I think he’s . . . ” “Yeah? Well, you tell your mother I said she’s . . . ” Calvin’s only pleasant recollections of home are of his younger sister, Lilly, who has achieved near saintly status in his memory.

We follow Calvin’s attempts to heal the discord between his parents, first through his newly acquired sophistication regarding sexual matters–advice both parents vehemently reject–and later, as his fortunes grow, through lavish presents, which they receive with polite indifference. After his beloved sister dies his parents separate, and only then does Calvin come to understand the role their very incompatibility has played in stabilizing their characters. “They protected each other!” he says, suddenly realizing Zada’s wisdom in matching Saul’s inertia with Bertha’s restlessness; when they part, they disintegrate. Meanwhile their son clings to the hope that their uneasy alliance has left no indelible marks on him.

The potential weepiness of Schisgal’s tale is tempered by the songs, which echo the events. These include not only standards like “GI Jive” and “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” but more ephemeral compositions like the gleeful “Der Fuhrer’s Face” and the innocent “You Can’t Say No to a Soldier”: “If he’s not your type / That’s still OK / You can always kiss him / In a sisterly way.” Particularly delightful is the medley that closes the first act, in which Calvin sings “Good-bye, Mama, I’m Off to Yokohama” while WWI vets Saul and Roy chime in with a nostalgic “Over There.” Under the direction of Susan Padveen and the musical direction of Stephen Dewey (who doubles as accompanist), this production never gives the impression that the music is being superimposed on the action–sugar inadequately covering bitter medicine. Instead it’s closely integrated with the story, much as familiar melodies waft through our memories.

Richard and Jacqueline Penrod’s set, with its pipe-and-flange furnishings and steel spiral stairs, reproduces perfectly the old-style New York theater from which Calvin remembers (the set’s enhanced by Mary M. Badger’s gently retro lighting), and Jessica Hahn’s costumes pinpoint the period without ever veering toward campy caricature. The cast give uniformly professional performances in their challenging roles–especially Paul Amandes and Lisa Marie Schultz as the troubled Saul and Bertha and David Nisbet as Roy, the “other man.” But the success of The Songs of War must depend almost wholly on Calvin’s ability to engage our sympathy. Guy Barile, himself a veteran performer, delivers charm and compassion in abundance with the generosity of a man who recalls a time when even love was rationed.

Schisgal is no Eugene O’Neill, but for all its schmaltziness The Songs of War raises weighty questions about familial interdependence and its effects on succeeding generations–questions well worthy of discussion.