Today, I Am a Fountain Pen, Chicago Jewish Theatre, at Red Hen Productions. Maybe I’d have liked this show better if I weren’t a Jew. A non-Jewish critic might more easily have tolerated its sentimental tribal cliches. Alternatively, it’s possible I’d have liked it better if Terry McCabe were a Jew. A Jewish director might’ve been less respectful of those cliches. As it is, however, I am, he’s almost certainly not, and Israel Horovitz’s World War II-era family comedy is insufferable.
The ethnic banalities start with the title, which refers to an old joke about a bar mitzvah boy’s faux pas. But do they ever not end there. Daddy Yanover’s in dry goods, Mama Yanover’s a shrieking love monster who won’t let her son skate for fear he’ll fall through the ice, and little Irving’s a precocious wiseass who plays Chopin like Van Cliburn and dreams of eating bacon. There’s a cranky old Jew who alternates between wry sagacity and corned absurdity, and a sexy shiksa governess who uses Irving as cover for her escapades, buying his silence with–yes–bacon.
Behind the aesthetic horror of these walking platitudes lurks the real horror of the Holocaust. But McCabe is so committed to maintaining a cute-and-cuddly nostalgia that he can’t acknowledge the negative aspects of the characters much less the slaughter of the Jews. The result is a disconnect that would be offensive if it weren’t so surreal–and an ominous start for Chicago’s new Jewish theater.