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 January 11, 2013

Back to Play

Between Christmas and New Year’s Day, critics are seldom if ever invited to see shows. Managements don’t want to give away tickets that would otherwise be sold. After all, Christmas Week has so many people in town that even a revival of Reggae could go clean between December 25 and January 1.

Ah, but once the holidays are over, critics essentially hear, “Right this way, your table’s waiting.” It’s back to work – or should I say back to play? Mind you, I’m not complaining. I’m quite aware – and grateful – that my job involves more play than work.

Not that My Name Is Asher Lev is playtime in the happy-go-lucky sense. Aaron Posner’s adaptation of Chaim Potok’s novel tackles a father-son conflict: Aryeh wants his son to go into one career, while Asher has his own ideas.

Here, Asher discovers early on that he can draw, and later that he can paint. But his father is a deeply religious Jew who believes that one should dedicate his life to God and nothing else. Art is silly; only in religion do we find true worth. Asher eventually gets a different opinion from his mentor Jacob Kahn, thank the Lord. (Hmmm, is “thank the Lord” an appropriate response in this situation?)

It’s played by a cast that was worth waiting for the holidays to end. Ari Brand is touching in his vulnerability as Asher, but he shows the character is no doormat when he eventually blasts his father for not valuing what he does. And how can Jenny Bacon, who seems so careworn as Asher’s mother, seem so downright sexy when she doubles as a model that’s ready to do her job as a nude?

Mark Nelson is careful to show that Aryeh has great sympathy for Asher, but first things first – and to him, that’s religion. The most potent scene occurs when he learns that Asher’s been painting nudes. Nelson is magnificent in the way that he sits at the kitchen table and casually sips from his “glass tea” when asking his son why he’s chosen these as his subjects. Here’s a man who’s seething inside, but one who knows that full-blown anger won’t solve the problem, and that he must take as high a road as possible. Despite this “I’m-just-curious” air, the mood (partly in thanks to Gordon Edelstein’s sharp direction) has a time-bomb feeling to it. Will Aryeh eventually get ticked-off enough that the bomb will stop ticking and explode?

Another playful part of my job is interviewing people connected with shows. During December, however, I rarely make interview requests, for I know I’m simply going to hear “Let’s wait until after the holidays.” But I have a feeling that Mark Nelson, who’s utterly charming, would be accommodating if I’d asked him for an interview on Thanksgiving Day just as the turkey was coming out of the oven.

As it turns out, Nelson can relate a bit to Asher. “Although my parents weren’t nearly as intense about wanting me to follow a certain path,” he admitted, ”I was still expected to go into some branch of medicine, because my father was a dentist and my mother’s father and brothers were heart surgeons. So, yes, they were freaked initially when I said I wanted to act.”

(They could only blame themselves. After all, who took little Markie from his Westwood, New Jersey home to see Barbara Cook in Show Boat? ‘Nuff said.)

Dr. Nelson still wasn’t convinced that his son had made the right career choice when the lad made his Broadway debut in the original Broadway cast of Amadeus. After all, Nelson was playing the not-so-coveted role of “Valet” and merely understudied Mozart. Ah, but when Nelson got roles in each play of Neil Simon’s “Jerome” trilogy, Dad came around – because Simon himself came around to Nelson’s dressing room one time while Dad happened to be visiting. Recalled Nelson, “When Neil walked in and said ‘Good show’ to me -- and Dad saw this giant of the theater saying that -- it made a big difference in the way that he viewed me.”

Of course, there have been stretches of unemployment. “And yet,” Nelson said, “for 35 years, I’ve been able to support myself from acting, teaching or coaching.” What a nice coincidence that Nelson is now teaching acting in the same Princeton classroom where he’d once studied under Daniel Seltzer, the Tony-nominated actor (Knock, Knock, 1976) who died at a much-too-young 47 in 1980. “Dan really believed in me,” said Nelson, referring to his own Jacob Kahn. “What made an equally important impression on my family is that he straddled the academic and professional theater world, too.”

At each performance, one of the highlights for Nelson is singing a Sabbath song that underlines what a religious man Aryeh is. “It wasn’t there when we did the play in New Haven (last May),” he said. “When Aaron went do to rewrites, he decided we should have a song. He asked Adena Potok, Chaim Potok’s widow, for suggestions. She actually had a record of Chaim Potok singing this song that we’re now using in the play. I feel as if I’m channeling him every time I sing it.”

And yet, the most potent moment for Nelson comes earlier. “Asher draws a picture of the Rebbe in the margins of his textbook, and is caught,” he recalled. “That takes me back to seventh grade when I did a similar thing – making a drawing of my teacher. She caught me as well and was angry -- until she gave a good look at the drawing. ‘My,’ she said, ‘this is good.’”

Lucky for us that she didn’t steer Nelson onto the path of becoming a graphic artist. And speaking of that, Asher talks about having an “artist’s block” that prevents him from painting. We’ve heard of “writer’s block,” too – but there an “actor’s block” as well? “There are nights when you feel you don’t have it,” Nelson admitted. All right -- but I’m here to say that Mark Nelson certainly had no actor’s block on Thursday, January 3rd.

The Wonderful Wizard of Song: The Music of Harold Arlen starts with the words “Forget your troubles; c’mon, get happy.” Would that we could, but this wan revue is too troubled to make anyone happy. To all involved in this misfire: get ready for the judgment day.

The 70-minute show offers 14 songs and three medleys for which Arlen wrote the music. That in itself would be good, but “The 3 Crooners” who perform most of the show aren’t. To think that I came down hard on the vocals in the Les Miz movie; I was lucky and didn’t know it.

No, to be fair, “The 3 Crooners” are neither good nor awful. They’re somewhere in-between. But I’d say don’t mess with Messrs. In-Between – especially as narrators. Many times, each of the three (George Bugatti, Marcus Goldhaber and Joe Shepherd) would begin a sentence of narration, but midway would halt, falter and then stumble along. This suggested that during rehearsals, the three of them got up at 12 and started work at one, took an hour for lunch and then at two were done.

All right, I’m gonna ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive: Antoinette Henry, who’s not one of “The 3 Crooners.” She gets the women’s songs – and all the “whoos” and applause seldom given to the guys and never at the same volume. Something’s wrong when the supporting player outshines the so-called stars.

Bugatti wrote the show as well and has unearthed some good stories. He answers the question that many of us have had through the years: how could a Jew write so well for blacks (in St. Louis Woman, House of Flowers and Jamaica)? What Ethel Waters had to say on the subject is nice to hear, too.

We’re also told that once studio executives heard the song that Arlen and Johnny Mercer had written for a movie, they just had to change the name of the film to that title. Better still is the tale that 30 minutes was all that was needed for Arlen and Ted Kohler to come up with one of the music world’s most enduring hits. What happened on the day Arlen died is bittersweet, too. (But the audience gasps in shock when it learns that Mercer was consorting with a barely legal young woman whose name is still known to one and all.)

The show’s ace trump is the few minutes of home movies that Arlen took on the set of The Wizard of Oz. In the famous scene where the trees throw apples, Arlen was filming from behind. What fun to see a new perspective to a scene that we’ve all known and loved since childhood. 

But the sample from the home movies ends before the three crooners finish their lackluster vocals. This made my January return to the theater seem less like play and more like gruesomely hard work.

         — Peter Filichia


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