|From left, Jeff Kitrosser, Ben Prayz, Jeff Fader, Sean Singer in “The Learning Play.”|
Two plays based on classic Jewish texts are in performance very far off Broadway. The Castillo Theatre (543 W. 42nd St.) is presenting a musical play based on tales connected with the chasidic master Levi-Yitzhok of Berditchev. Written by Castillo’s artistic director Dan Friedman more than 20 years ago, the play was Castillo’s first production, and is now back to open the company’s 28th season.
Castillo describes itself as an experimental political theater, so it’s not surprising that “The Learning Play of Rabbi Levi-Yitzhok, Son of Sara, of Berditchev” looks for the revolutionary message in the sage’s sayings.
Four Jews are on a ship bound for New York from Europe in the early years of the 20th century, and as there’s nothing much to do, they fall to arguing about religion. Although all are workingmen, only one is a communist (you can tell by his boots). The others are believers, in more and less traditional ways. Whether educated or not, the four are all familiar with midrash and the tales of the chasidic masters. To pass the time, the men decide to act out several of Reb Levi-Yitzhok’s famous stories.
Pitting the one unbeliever against the more pious passengers, the men grapple with questions that trouble Jews to this day. What is the relationship between form and essence? Can the essence of Judaism exist without the form of ritual? Is it humanity’s responsibility to correct injustice, or should people wait patiently for God to perfect creation? Can we separate service to God from service to humanity, and which takes precedence?
The Berditchever was known for his compassion, and the stories the men tell underline the original chasidic sensitivity to the poor and uneducated. Drunkards and teamsters are celebrated above learned men. Of course, the four men see dramatically different meanings in the stories, and their lively arguments keep the audience engaged.
The imaginative set by Joseph Spirito evokes the deck of the ship at dawn, and David Belmont’s sound design provides the lapping waves. Unfortunately, Moshe Yassur directs the play at such a slow pace that its 75-minute length feels significantly longer, and the clarinet that accompanies the action can be annoying. Also, I’ve never understood why English-speaking actors playing Yiddish-speaking Jews have to adopt that fake sing-songy lilt when they say their lines.
Friedman doesn’t give his characters real personalities or even names, but just sketches in their backgrounds. They stand for the Jewish everyman, long-suffering and hard-working. These quibbles aside, “The Learning Play” actually delivers a lot of learning, and should provoke serious discussion about the Jewish commitment to social justice, particularly in these days of Occupy Wall Street. The struggle to free people from economic slavery continues.
‘Moses, My Love’
Then there is “Moses, My Love,” a musical based on the Book of Exodus that somehow manages to make that extraordinarily dramatic story seem banal. With music and lyrics by Paul Dick, whose earliest works were presented by the WPA Theater, the show at the Roy Arias Theatres, 300 W. 43rd St., suite 506, succeeds in being simultaneously insipid and tasteless. Not easy to do. It begins with Yocheved’s hiding the baby Moses in a basket and moves in a straight line through his discovery and adoption by Egypt’s princess. The show seemed like a school production at first, earnest and unimaginative, but then veered off to include some juvenile risquÃ© humor, which eliminated its only natural audience – children. There are some shows that make you wonder, What were people thinking? “Moses, My Love” is one of those. But at least the singers have good voices.