Monday, March 2, 2009

Cleveland Heights, Mandel Jewish Community Center

(There's more Jewish soul on this bagel than in the play Cleveland Heights.)

Let’s understand one thing up front. I’m a goy. I’m such a gentile, I never knew the difference between a schlemiel and a schlamazel until I heard the words in the Laverne & Shirley theme song some 30 years ago, and then asked somebody what the terms meant. Until I was 14, I thought a matzo ball was playground equipment.

But even I can tell when a play that is supposed to look into the soul of the local Cleveland Jewish community misses the mark, as does Cleveland Heights, now being produced by the Mandel Jewish Community Center. Written by Keith Reddin on a commission from the JCC, this is a tepid, sterile and agonizingly slow-paced work. And this just isn’t kosher, given vital and intriguing history of Jews in this area.

The problems begin with the script, but certainly don’t end there. Reddin has divided the play into two eras, the late 1940s in Act One and the 1970s in Act Two, both of which are set in the living room of a Jewish family’s Cleveland Heights home.

This play structure immediately ignores one of the critical aspects of many Cleveland Jewish families: their move from the inner city to the nearby suburbs. I learned about that when I was a teacher at Patrick Henry Junior High School in Glenville from 1968 to 1974. Whenever I mentioned where I taught, older Jewish friends’ eyes would mist over as they remembered fondly their years living in that neighborhood back in the 1930s and 40s. Where is that part of the story?

Instead, Reddin focuses on the imminent death of the family patriarch, Leo, who runs the garment business with his son David. His other son, Aaron, a law student at the University of Chicago, has just arrived on a death-watch visit to support the family. The primary conflict in the first act involves David trying to cajole or manipulate Aaron into coming back home permanently, to help run the business. But since Reddin never embellishes that argument beyond the basic elements (“Come back.” “No.” Come back.” No.”), it never goes anywhere.

Then, the second act shifts three decades forward, and Aaron is now living in the family home with his converted-to-Judaism wife Catherine. Turns out, during the intermission Aaron gave up on his law career and moved back home, David died, and Aaron’s sister Sarah, who was an obedient 20-something earlier, is now a pot-smoking, barefoot, liberated 50-year-old. We aren’t privy to that change, either. (It sucks that all this interesting stuff happened while we were taking a bathroom break.)

In fact, the entire play is composed of potentially compelling story lines that are never explored. Why do we never learn more about the garment business in Cleveland, or the specific issues that Cleveland Jews dealt with over these years?

What we are left with is a play without a driving central conflict. In its place, we have a sampler plate of problems that are never explored in any depth: the declining family business, Aaron getting a second mortgage on the home to pay for their daughter’s wedding, and a decades-old tension between Aaron’s family and Catherine’s family that’s brought up (and instantly resolved) ten minutes before the final curtain.

Moreover, this play could be set in any city with a Jewish population, if you deleted about three or four local references that are dropped in almost mechanically.

Beyond the script difficulties, which are legion, the production suffers from some unfortunate choices made by director Brian Zoldessy and scenic designer Ben Needham. The actors are forced to operate on a living room set that looks more like a mini-ballroom in a Bratenahl mansion than a house in the Cedar-Taylor area. If anyone wants to walk from far stage right to answer the front door at stage left, they are advised to pack a lunch.

Making matters worse, there are two lonely seating areas, a couch over here and a pair of chairs over there, that are apart from each other and facing the audience, defying any known interior decorating logic. Director Zoldessy doesn’t help by often blocking his actors to take up space across the whole stage—sometimes, two or three people are talking to each other but are so far away from each other you could drive a truck between them.

With all this working against them, the experienced cast does what it can with their mostly cardboard characters. Charles Kartali as Aaron has some nice moments with Maryann Elder’s Catherine in the second act. Elizabeth Townsend crafts an interesting older Catherine, although it’s hard to match her up with her younger self. And Scott Miller as David and Sharmon Sollitto as Leo’s wife Faye contribute what they can.

On the plus side, this play has not co-opted anyone else’s desire to write an insightful and knowledgeable play about this city’s Jewish community. And it is hoped someone takes up that challenge.

Cleveland Heights
Through March 15, produced by the
Mandel Jewish Community Center and
Cuyahoga Community College Eastern Campus,
at the Tri-C East Campus, 4250 Richmond Road,
Beachwood, 866-546-1358

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