Every parent has to acknowledge at some point, that “I did the best I could.”
No one is perfect, and the parent-child relationship is particularly vulnerable to conflict and disappointment. While family conflicts form the basis for so much theater, immigrant stories of this sort tend to wrap them in a gauzy nostalgia. The new musical “Goldstein,” now at the Actors Temple Theatre on West 47th Street, avoids that and approaches the relationships within a multi-generational Jewish family with refreshing honesty and sympathy.
Louis Goldstein (Zal Owen) has written a successful tell-all memoir about his family, but some members of the family insist that much of it is untrue. The show opens cleverly, with Louis addressing the audience as if it had come to a 92nd Street Y-style author presentation. After exclaiming how excited he is that the book is an Oprah’s pick, Louis quickly invokes his grandparents, Zelda (Amie Bermowitz) and Louie (Jim Stanek); his parents, Nathan (Aaron Galligan-Stierle) and Eleanor (Sarah Beth Pfeifer); his aunt, Sherri (Megan McGinnis), and his sister, Miriam (Julie Benko) in the song “They Are Here.”
As the 90-minute play progresses, we learn that Zelda fell in love with a man on the ship that brought her to America but ended up marrying Louie instead. Why that happened, why Louie changed his last name from Rudolph to Goldstein, and why Sherri remained unmarried are more family secrets that Louis reveals.
Unlike many immigrant family plays, “Goldstein” does not pretend that everything was warm and wonderful. The usual formula in such stories is the family had some obstacles, but it all worked out because they stuck together and loved each other so much. Here, the Goldsteins experience desertion, betrayal, and discrimination — and that’s just from each other. For the most part, the show’s book, by Charlie Schulman, which was inspired by his 1998 play “The Kitchen,” makes the play feel believable and real.
Though Zelda is a savvy businesswoman who runs the family’s dress shop, that doesn’t mean she thinks her daughter Sherri should go to medical school, even on a full scholarship. On the contrary, she thinks that Sherri should put her energies into finding a husband. Sherri is the saddest character in the play, consistently pushed aside for her less talented brother, yet she’s the one who is most insistent that Louis’s book is filled with falsehoods. That kind of family loyalty is not uncommon; Sherri is a gentle, dependent woman who never considers the possibility of just doing what she wants, regardless of what her parents want.
It’s the women in the family who make the sacrifices. Zelda abandons her dream of romantic love, Sherri sets aside her own ambition to further her brother’s, and Eleanor learns to deal with a critical and demanding mother-in-law — with the help of a bottle of pills. Still, family bonds provide strength as well as restriction. The duet between Nathan and Sherri, “Standing Beside You,” emphasizes the deep connection between the brother and sister, despite their parents’ favoritism. The funniest number is “Visiting Your Mother,” with Eleanor and Nathan making the trip out to New Jersey to see Zelda. One thing the show could have used more of is up-tempo, humorous songs. Michael Roberts’ lyrics usually are more interesting than his music.
“Goldstein” is a modest show that doesn’t try to be more than it is. It depends on a likable, talented cast and clear direction by Brad Rouse to keep the pace crisp. It isn’t a powerhouse, but in its own sweet way, it is an enjoyable theatrical experience.