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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Kaufman's Barbershop

"This shop is part of the world". — Morris

"A barber shop, that's all this is."— Jake

"And I'm telling you this shop is not exempt from the struggles that are going on outside that door."— Morris.
Kaufman's Barber Shop
The cast of Kaufman's Barber Shop(Photo credit: Kevin Sprague)
The hottest ticket of the Shakespeare & Company seaon is about a group of Jewish immigrants getting 40 cent hair cuts, 15 cent manicures and 25 cent shoeshines in Jake Kaufman's barbershop in Syracuse New York in 1925. One reason tickets are as scarce as the perennial hen's teeth is that this world premiere by Robert Sugarman runs for just a couple of weeks and has been staged in an actual barber shop in Pittsfield. That site specific setting promises to be, and is, lots of fun, but it also limits the audience for each performance to only about 50 people.

Most importantly, Kaufman's Barbershop has been staged with great flair by Regge Life to create a congenial as well as authentic setting for the splendid five-member cast to capture the personalities of the characters. The focus is on the three main characters, all of whom have also been doing splendid work in Shakespeare & Company's Heroes: proprietor Jake Kaufman (Robert Lohbauer) and two regular customers and old friends — proud World War I veteran, lawyer and assistant district attorney Morris Schwartz (Jonathan Croy, who ably took over here as well as at Heroes when Jonathan Epstein left for a teaching gig) and jewelry store owner Jesse Markowitz (Malcolm Ingram).

To complete the cast, there are two more representatives of America's world of minorities, shoeshine boy Walter Henderson (Thomas Brazzle) and manicurist Maggie Fitzgerald (Kate Abbruzzese). All these characters are based on the 86-year old playwright's memories of watching his father's cronies gather for shaves, gossip and relaxation from the tensions of being part of a rising immigrant class in a similar barbershop.

Sugarman has imbued his script with the right degree of the humor and camaraderie that the three men share. Like many Jewish immigrants at that time they started out with vaudeville ambitions but turned to more practical mainstream careers. Thus the play opens with a mustachioed Kaufman entering from behind a makeshift black curtain to delight his young manicurist with a Charlie Chaplin routine. When Morris and Jesse come on scene it becomes clear that the hair cuts, manicures shoe shines occasionally prompt singing as well as a lot of conversation. Ingram's Jesse even plays the ukelele (who knew that Ingram is as fine a musician as an actor?!).

The performances by Abbruzzese and Brazzle as well as the main trio, the smoothly staged musical interludes by Alexander Sovronsky and Govae Lohbauer's true to the 20s costumes all contribute to making this an all around top drawer, entertaining production. But as a barber can do so much to cover up a spreading bald spot, so all the assets of this production aren't quite enough to cover up the one fatal flaw in Mr. Sugarman's play.

It's understandable for the playwright to want these barbershop meetings to be more than a nostalgic entertainment but to create a plot. Making Walter a budding writer who's come back to Syracuse from a stint in New York because his father was severely injured in an accident, and having him and Maggie fall in love, provides a chance to talk about events beyond Syracuse and tie together the trends and issues connecting the three middle aged Jewish men with the world that young black men like Walter and spunky Irish immigrants like Maggie faced in a world that was changing in their favor, but still not enough so.

Morris's wanting to use his influence to help Walter's father is valid enough. Unfortunately, his interchange with Walter turns the atmosphere in the barber shop into too much of a polemic. Most egregiously, it transforms Morris from a praiseworthy patriot into a despicable villain. He's understandably proud to have become an American with well-earned prestige and acceptance into a despicable villain but quickly reveals himself to be a pretentious right-wing type who sounds off about "schwartzes" and hyphenated Americans (a term unlikely to even be in use in 1925). He's so over the top mean that he's now willing to harm anyone who disagrees with idea of upstanding Americanism — including his two old friends. While Croy does the villain with verve, he's stuck with a cardboard character who in an old-fashioned melodrama would have the audience hissing when he joins the more heroic others for the curtain call.

Kaufman's Barbershop
By Robert Sugarman
Directed by Regge Life
Cast: Kate Abbruzzese(Maggie Fitzgerald), Thomas Brazzle (Walter Henderson), Jonathan Croy (Morris Schwartz), Malcolm Ingram (Jesse Markowitz), Robert Lohbauer (Jake Kaufman)
Set design: Patrick Brennen
Costume design: Govane Lohbauer
Sound design: Michael Pfeiffer
Musical arrangements & music direction: Alexander Sovronsky
Stage Manager: Anthony O. Bullock
Shakespeare & Co at Upstreet Barbers 442 North Street, Pittsfield
August 14 – September 1
Running Time: 2 hours, including one intermission Reviewed by Elyse Sommer on Friday August 23rd
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