“The hunted are all on the same side,” says the old Jewish merchant in the first of two one-act plays by British writer Wolf Mankowitz, now Off-Off Broadway at The Cell, 338 West 23rd St.
The merchant is speaking to an Irish revolutionary who is hiding out in his upstairs shtiebel in Cork in the early 1920s. That sentiment is central to Mankowitz’s worldview, as it was to millions of left-leaning Jews in the twentieth century. Their perspective arose in a world where most Jews were poor, and in the way of the world were often crushed under the heels of those who were richer and more powerful.
New Yiddish Rep has adapted two plays by Mankowitz that show off his deep Jewish roots and his identification with the oppressed. In the first, “The Irish Hebrew Lesson,” the aforementioned revolutionary sneaks into the house where the old man is davening to hide from the Black and Tans, or British police, who are after him. The merchant takes the opportunity to practice his Irish, which he needs to do business, and to teach the young man a bit of Hebrew. That Hebrew phrase comes in handy when the police burst in to search the house. The notion of language as both unifying and separating is meaningful to both men, as is the concept of a foreign, and perhaps hated, tongue becoming their own.
“The Irish Hebrew Lesson” is a slight piece, helped by a fine natural performance by Fergal O’Hanlon as the young man with the gun. Originally produced in 1972 as a film, it starred Milo O’Shea. In 1978, it was presented as a play in London. Its most unique feature may be that it is multilingual — Irish, Yiddish, Hebrew, and English.
The second play is more substantive and more attuned to the working-class concerns of the generation of Angry Young Men so influential in post-war England. That is the generation to which Mankowitz belonged. Although he was educated at Cambridge, Mankowitz grew up in London’s rough East End.
“The Bespoke Overcoat” is based on a short story by the classic Russian writer Nikolai Gogol and echoes the sentiments found in the Yiddish great I.L. Peretz’s short story “Bontche Schweig.” Shane Baker plays Fender, a dead shipping clerk who returns from the underworld to visit Maury (Michael Fox), a tailor who promised to make him a new winter coat. Working long days in a freezing warehouse, Fender has been wearing the same coat for more than twenty years. When Maury makes it clear that his coat no longer can be mended, after some negotiation, Fender agrees to pay ten dollars for a new one. But saving up that sum requires enormous sacrifice. Fender has to give up soup, and subsists on bread and salt alone. His callous boss Ranting (Ilan Kwittken) refuses to raise the heat in the warehouse and Fender develops a wicked cough. Maury, a confirmed boozer, is sympathetic, but nothing helps.
Baker translates Mankowitz’s breakout 1953 play into a supple, idiomatic Yiddish, filled with humor and pathos, and he gives a genuinely moving performance as the poor clerk. (The original play was later made into a movie and won the Oscar in 1957 for Best Short Subject.) Michael Fox, who also plays the old man in the first one act, is a genial Maury, and you will root for them to succeed in their plan to get justice for the ghostly Fender. Unlike Bontche, Fender schemes to get his own back. Mankowitz moved the action to the East End, but it is just as easy to imagine it taking place in a New York City setting.
The two plays are directed by Moshe Yassur, who also directed the company’s excellent Yiddish production of “Waiting for Godot.” Although Mankowitz achieved renown in the U.K, he never was as well known in the U.S. Perhaps his reputation will rise in the language that probably was spoken in his childhood home. Supertitles translate the dialogue into English.
“2 by Wolf” runs through July 2. More information at (800) 838-3006.