“The worst is yet to come,” warns Jak Lowy as his fellow actor and lover takes the stage at the off-off-Broadway Theater for the New City. So the audience is prepared when Mme. Trassek begins wailing and crying.
The couple are performers in the Yiddish theater in pre-World War I Czechoslovakia, which means they overact their way wildly through skits, jokes, and mangled Shakespeare. Mme. Trassek is a hit as Queen Leah, for instance, which loosely follows King Lear. The queen has three sons instead of three daughters, and the youngest is her favorite. You get the picture.
Business is not good for these two, so Mme. Trassek supplements their income by selling hot sweet potatoes from a cart. What they need is a decent script. Luckily, they run into a young man who is desperately unhappy selling nuts and bolts on the road. As he dutifully writes his father, the act of selling doesn’t come naturally to him, but writing evidently does. When he signs his letters Gregor Samsa, a twitchy sense of recognition hits. Isn’t that the character in Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”? What’s he doing here?
Franz Kafka was indeed a fan of the Yiddish theater and attended performances at the Cafe Savoy in Prague, where this play is set. The late playwright Lu Hauser doesn’t give the audience much information, however, beyond the character’s name, so there is a sense of avant garde mishmash in the action between the two middle-aged actors and the younger writer. When Gregor tries to convince them that his new story, “The Hunger Artist,” would be great on stage, most people familiar with Kafka will catch on.
Mme. Trassek spends considerable time bemoaning her two little daughters, left behind when she ran away to join the theater, and Jak Lowy plays the seducer with broad humor. Of course, Yiddish theater thrived on overacting, on heartrending stories of lost children and broken-hearted mothers, on women betrayed by scoundrels, so “Prague, 1912” captures the tone, albeit with irony. The performances by Jack Barilla as Jak, Jason Howard as Gregor, and Jenne Vath as Mme. Trassek are solid, and Alex Wilborn adds a lot with his cornet solo. The play suffers from a confusing, episodic script, but the love of the theater inherent in any backstage story comes through.