‘The Portrait’ is mostly empty
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‘The Portrait’ is mostly empty

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James Leaf as Marty, Roger Hendricks Simon as Henry, and Jessica Eleanor Grant as Alissa. Josie Williams

The press materials for “The Portrait” by Sarah Levine Simon say that the play was first written for National Public Radio’s drama series “Simon Studio Presents.”

It may have worked better in that format than it does in the production now running at Theater 54 on West 54th Street. Stretched to what feels like a long 90 minutes, “The Portrait” is oddly light on plot and almost entirely lacking in wit. Not promising for what purports to be a satirical comedy.

The story is simple in the extreme. At a dinner party in a fancy Upper East Side apartment in 1982, two well-heeled older brothers and their wives meet and await the arrival of a younger cousin and his wife. Each of the couples owns a portrait of a Revolutionary Era ancestor, made by a well-known painter. The two older brothers, Henry and Toddy, bet that they can convince the young man, a struggling theater director, to sell his painting. The other painting will go to the winner as well, so the three portraits all will belong to one person. Why this is a big deal is unclear, but evidently it’s better if they are all together.

Helen, the hostess and wife of Toddy Renard, is the pretentious sort who insists that the maid pronounce “fines herbes” just right, while Henry keeps a watchful eye on his wife Aggie’s drinking. Henry and Toddy dare each other to have a bit of Helen’s famous pate, as if they were still naughty boys snitching cookies.

If the dialogue was consistently clever, this setup might have worked in a 1930s screwball comedy about the daffy upper classes and their peculiar habits. That would have required much quicker pacing than exists in “The Portrait,” however. The play would benefit from speedier farce-like timing, despite its lack of plot movement.

The reason this review appears in the Jewish Standard at all is that the characters are revealed to be Jews, but the sort who don’t want to make a display of it. Although they are proud of their early American Jewish ancestors, they keep the emphasis on the American rather than the Jewish.

When young cousin Marty’s wife, Alissa, announces that her parents keep kosher, Helen is shocked. Of course, Jews have been making (better) jokes about this kind of thing for hundreds of years, so “The Portrait” isn’t going to win praise for originality. This has been a trope from the Yiddish theater all the way to Woody Allen.

Surprisingly, Simon doesn’t do anything with the family name of Renard, which is French for fox. As my mother would have asked, what was it before they changed it?

The large cast in “The Portrait” includes Roger Hendricks Simon, who directs and plays Henry, as well as a group of talented professional actors. James Leaf as Marty Finkelstein, the young cousin, brings a jolt of energy to the proceedings when he comes on stage, and Jessica Eleanor Grant shows off a gorgeous voice as Marty’s wife, who is a singer. The playwright herself is a classical singer, who has appeared as a soloist and in opera. The play is produced by AdLib Productions (Actors and Directors Living in Brooklyn) and The Simon Studio. Run by Roger Hendricks Simon, this is a coaching/training space for actors and directors.

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