"Pop lived at the top of his voice and the edge of his nerves," a son says admiringly at the end of Herb Gardner's "Conversations With My Father." The play conveys the voice and the nerves, but too little of the sould of the patriarchal generation to which his father belonged.
Pop in this case is a Jew named Eddie who takes over an Irish bar on Canal St. in 1936. We watch as, over the next 40 years, he changes the name and decor to build a clientele apart from the lost souls he already serves.
The first thing he does is change his name from Goldberg to Ross. His older son finds this denial of his Jewish identity troubling. It is a theme that recurs throughout the play, though Gardner never probes deeply into what Jewishness means. The one thing that prods both generations into acknowledging their Jewishness is anti-Semitism.
In these elements lies the spine of a play. "Conversations," however, is so flabby that the backbone is sorely taxed. The play seldom seems focused. Its most attractive elements are its authentically Jewish moments, especially when the characters speak some Yiddish, all of which is translated for us. (I had never heard the wonderful expression, "Sleep faster. We need your pillow.)
Similarly, of the many characters that contribute to the flab, the most successful is a Yiddish actor who does a one-man show ending with a 12-minute version of "The Dybbuk," in which he does all the parts. This part is elegantly played by David Margulies.
There is a fine set piece in which Pop throws some gangsters out of his bar. The mugs are well acted by Richard E. Council and John Procaccino, but the scene is more theatrical than it is persuasive.
Judd Hirsch is a powerhouse as Eddie, even if the play never makes us believe he was the giant his son thinks he is. The role gives him ample opportunities to demonstrate his prowess as a purveyor of Gardner's unfailingly entertaining palaver.
Jason Biggs and David Krumholtz are ingratiating as his young songs; Tony Shalhoub and Tony Gillan solid as the older versions. Gordana Rashovich, as their mother, has too little to do. What kind of Jewish family is this, where the mother is only a bit player?
Tony Walton's set has a grandiose solidity that adds weight to a play that ought to be weightier.
To melt or not to melt - that was the Ellis Island question; and it is the question behind Herb Gardner's pungent, deep-felt and very powerful "Conversations With My Father," which opened at the Royale Theater last night. For all the waves of immigrants who lapped around Lady Liberty around the turn of the century, jumping pell-mell into America's melting pot, the issue of assimilation proved all important.
Did you become Yankee Doodle Dandy with a funny accent, or did you, whether Jewish, Irish, Italian or whatever, lovingly try to preserve as many elements as possible of the old country? And for Jews the issue was particularly difficult - for not only, often having fled from East European pogroms, did they have to face anti-Semitism in their new land of hope, but their nation and their religion, their culture and their beliefs were inextricably bound together.
"Conversations With My Father" is about coming to terms with one's past - to some extent we are camped out in Neil Simon territory, with an extra does of Leo Rosten's "The Joys of Yiddish" (explanatory jokes and all) laced in. But Gardner's main concern is what is a Jew and what is Jewishness? The play tried to illuminate the anatomy of an alien people in an alien world, and also man in his relation to God.
The play is set in a bar on Canal Street - Charlie, a best-selling, millionaire novelist, and his teenage son are cleaning the place out. It used to belong to Charlie's own father and mother, but they're both dead now and the bar is to be sold. From its huge moose-head on the wall to the pictures of long-departed ballplayers and boxers decorating the booths, for Charlie the place is full of harsh voices and bitter memories.
These are all centered around Eddie, his domineering father, a first-generation American who had come all the way from Odessa to bulldoze his way to honorable failure, running his little all-American neighborhood bar and restaurant for 30 years without ever more than glimpsing the Yankee big-time.
Gardner makes no secret of the fact that the play is based on life; and doubtless, allowing for the obvious demands of art, the events of the play, such as they are, have the imprimatur of truth if not actuality. So the play is part a character study of the aggressive, unlikable, abrasive Eddie, but - more important - a description what it was like to grow up young, gifted and Jewish in New York during the Roosevelt years.
Eddie changed the family name from Rosenberg to Ross (after the fighter Barney Ross), which symbolized his determination to be American. But curiously, or perhaps not, his lodger, a pillar of the Yiddish theater called Zaretsky, by tenaciously clinging to his heritage has the more satisfaction - and even more success.
Daniel Sullivan has staged the play with affectionate grace, and Tony Walton's reconstruction of the Canal Street bar is a minor masterpiece and major delight.
The acting, of course, is dominated by Judd Hirsch, being superbly unlikable in an unlikable role. But David Margulies also scores brilliantly as the wise old Yiddish actor, and Tony Shalhoub in the difficult, largely reactive role of the son/commentator, adds a nicely baffled presence to the proceedings.
Quite often the real comedy is undercut by the sugar-coated slickness of the jokes - think of what O'Neill would have made of this theme - but the seriousness of the play keeps breaking through, making these one-sided "Conversations With My Father" rewarding listening.
"I wish I could tell you that he won my heart in that final chapter, but he did not," a successful novelist named Charlie (Tony Shalhoub) says of his aged father in the waning moments of "Conversations With My Father." That line, at once brutally honest and clinically detached, seems to sum up just what is impressive and what is lacking in Herb Gardner's richly atmospheric new memory play at the Royale Theater.
In Eddie Ross, the immigrant Canal Street bartender played by Judd Hirsch, Mr. Gardner has created, without apologies, a most disagreeable Jewish patriarch. An angry, remote and abusive man who always lives "at the top of his voice and the edge of his nerves," Eddie is found yelling at a baby in his first scene and, a few joyous moments aside, rarely stops barking at all comers for two acts (and his 30 years of stage time) to follow. The sour realism of this portrait is not only uncompromising but is also a brave and unexpected feat from a writer whose "I'm Not Rappaport" offered the most adorable of cantankerous Jewish codgers, also played by Mr. Hirsch.
But if Eddie is too unlovable to win either his son's heart or an audience's by the final chapter, can he arouse any emotion deeper than irritation, whether pity or sorrow or rage? I wish I could tell you that he did, but "Conversations With My Father" may be honest to a fault. Mr. Gardner is so scrupulous about refusing to sentimentalize his title character that he hardly dramatizes him, leaving Eddie a distant figure changed by little but age from start to finish. No doubt that is how this stubborn father was in life, but after putting up with him all night, one hungers for some transcendent insight or conflict or catharsis that might strip him bare and deliver a knockout emotional punch. It says volumes about the evening's shortfall that Mr. Hirsch's two most wrenching moments find him with his back to the audience.
Mr. Gardner's play is far more satisfying in other departments, however incidental they sometimes seem to the father-son axis that is ostensibly its focus. Evocatively staged and superbly acted by a large cast, "Conversations With My Father" has some of its author's most flavorful writing. In telling the story of Eddie, Mr. Gardner also wishes to tell the saga of a first generation of American Jews who came of age in the Depression and assimilated at a high price during and after World War II. Although that history is dispiriting, the author's passionate affection for the Old World that Eddie wishes to disown gives the play a lot of warmth and more than a few piquant laughs.
Designed by Tony Walton with a poetic verve worthy of "The Iceman Cometh," Eddie's saloon is an airless den of dark wood whose only consistent source of light is a brightly colored Wurlitzer jukebox. The first music we hear is a holdover from the old country, and as the play is a struggle between father and son, so it also proves to be a struggle between two cultures, as typified by the clashing songs on the jukebox. Eddie is so eager to melt into the melting pot and make big bucks that he gives his bar an "early American" decor, legally changes his family's name and, when all else fails, periodically renames the bar, too, in feeble emulation of the sophisticated uptown clubs he reads about in Walter Winchell's column. Yet the haunting melody of his old identity is not so easily silenced.
That melody prevails in the actual music and prayers of the evening and in Mr. Gardner's re-creation of a vanished Yiddish universe. In a delightful early speech, delivered by Mr. Shalhoub with priceless inflections and timing, sterile American vernacular is compared to Yiddish and found terribly wanting. For further enlightenment, the playwright sends on a little-employed Second Avenue actor named Zaretsky, "a dying man with a dead language and no place to go," who boards with Eddie and his family. In the wry, bantam figure of David Margulies, Zaretsky is a magical repository of his artistic and ethnic heritage, especially in a transporting scene in which he performs excerpts from all his shows, from "Hamlet" to "The Dybbuk," while pulling props from a carpetbag. But he also lugs around a darker history. The old actor never stops reminding Eddie of the past pogroms and the gradually emerging Holocaust that the Americanized bartender would rather ignore.
Like the family relationships in this play, Eddie's battle with Zaretsky (and the themes it encapsulates) never comes to a resolution. A related and windy Act I subplot, in which Eddie and his older son, an aspiring pugilist named Joey, both must do battle against anti-Semitic toughs in their own neighborhood, also disappears abruptly. Depending on how you look at it, "Conversations" is either an impressionistic tapestry of flashbacks or an unfinished work that seems to have been hacked up and stitched together arbitrarily in a clumsy editing process. Too many major characters leave without saying goodbye. Too many supporting characters, starting with the various barflies, never amount to more than running gentile gags. Most grievously shortchanged is Eddie's blissfully unassimilated wife, Gusta, who is enlivened more by the actress Gordana Rashovich's radiant humor and frantic eyes than by anything in the text.
The play is directed by Daniel Sullivan with as much skill as he brought to New York's other current, if much different, play about an immigrant Jewish father at war with his heirs, "The Substance of Fire." This production boasts two exceptional performances by children: Jason Biggs, who as the smart older brother recalls the precocious boy played by Barry Gordon in Mr. Gardner's "Thousand Clowns," and David Krumholtz, as the childhood incarnation of Mr. Shalhoub's Charlie. What even a director as deft as Mr. Sullivan cannot disguise are the play's strange dramatic omissions. Although there is a big and effective showdown between Mr. Hirsch and young Mr. Krumholtz, the final confrontation between the father and the grown Charlie proves to be one of the several anticlimaxes that make "Conversations" seem to drift off rather than arrive at a final curtain.
Whether this is the playwright's intention or a failure to come fully to terms with his characters is a question only he can answer. Either way, he has deprived Mr. Hirsch and Mr. Shalhoub of the payoff scene, that exorcism of personal dybbuks, that Arthur Miller or Neil Simon would have given them in their equivalent family dramas.
The play's many vignettes offer their own opportunities, all perfectly handled by the stars. Even in his few patches of benevolence, the fiercely energetic Mr. Hirsch acts with complete integrity here, never sugarcoating Eddie's bleak view of life as a constant boxing match in which each opponent, within or outside his family, is treated with derision. Mr. Shalhoub, who is onstage continuously, either narrating or participating in every flashback, conveys wisdom, warmth and humor whether he is looking back with embarrassment at his awkward, horny adolescence or trying as an adult to have one conversation with his father that is not one-sided. It is hard to imagine how Mr. Gardner, or any other playwright, could be blessed with a better stand-in than this actor, who keeps you trusting, admiring and enjoying the storyteller even when you spot the holes in his tale.