|Dan Hicks (as Harry S. Truman), Rick Grossman (as Eddie Jacobson), and Lydia Gladstone (as Bluma Jacobson)|
Even though he complained constantly about the pushy Jews who were driving him crazy, Harry Truman was no anti-Semite, says Truman’s former business partner Eddie Jacobson in the play “Harry & Eddie: The Birth of Israel,” currently at St. Luke’s Theater on W. 46th Street. That is just the way Truman talked. His conversation was always laced with profanity, and “Jewing someone down” was an ordinary colloquialism.
Playwright Mark Weston has written what is essentially a one-man play and added two more characters to tell the story of a historically pivotal friendship. Rick Grossman as Eddie is on stage for the whole 90 minutes, with Harry Truman (Dan Hicks) and Bluma Jacobson (Lydia Gladstone) coming on in several scenes for a few minutes at a time. The simple set effectively employs photographic images as time shifts from the beginning of the 20th century until 1948, when Israel was declared a state.
The play, which began in 2008 as a staged reading at Hofstra University in conjunction with Israel’s 60th anniversary, is framed as a presentation in front of a B’nai B’rith audience. Eddie seems genuinely nervous and awkward as he begins to tell the crowd of how his lifelong relationship with Truman enabled him to convince the president of the United States to meet with the Zionist leader Dr. Chaim Weitzman.
Peppering his talk with Yiddish phrases, Eddie details how his father ended up in the Midwest, and then how he and Truman became close friends in their World War I army unit. It was Truman’s idea to open a men’s clothing store together after the war ended, according to the play, and the men even married in the same year, and had daughters about the same time. Grossman is totally credible as the Midwestern Jewish salesman, someone who did not have much education, but always had “the gift of gab, a pair of shined shoes, and a smile.”
“Harry & Eddie” is one of those plays that illuminate a particular historical event or relationship. These plays rarely make for exciting or innovative theater, but they can be informative and enjoyable, and “Harry & Eddie” meets that criteria. We learn about Truman’s ties to Kansas City’s corrupt political machine and the ups and downs of the haberdashery trade during the Depression. We learn that at least some American Jews knew about the extermination of the Jews in Europe, and that Truman agreed with Roosevelt that the best way to help was to win the war as quickly as possible.
What we do not learn is why Eddie Jacobson, unlike most of his fellow Jews, was so distraught that he imposed on his old friend over and over. We do not learn what made Eddie a rabid Zionist. We do not learn much, if anything, about Eddie’s internal life. Although he repeats that he was born a Jew and will die a Jew, what actually does that mean? The play does not supply Jacobson’s answer.
Rick Grossman began his career as a child actor in the Yiddish theater, appearing with famed performers Molly Picon and Menasha Skulnick. His Yiddish is totally fluent, and he seems comfortable with the world of synagogue and communal organizations. His more generous contours contrast nicely with the lean Mr. Hicks, and we believe that the two men are genuinely fond of each other. Briskly directed by Bob Spiotto and well acted by its cast, “Harry & Eddie” is an entertaining history lesson.