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Love in a Thirsty Land
My soul thirsts for you like a dry and thirsty land
How, except with a biblical quote can an ultra orthodox Jew in 1875 declare his passion for a young woman. Since he's married and a rabbi in the making how does he get himself into such a situation? Well, for one thing if his wife is still in Poland, he's at high risk to be vulnerable to the attractions of a spunky young woman. If that young woman is also a Jewish girl from Poland who has traded the old ways for the freer Socialist spirit prevailing in New York, it's easy for the young pious Jew to convince himself that he's befriended her in order to bring her back to the fold.
Susan May Pratt & David Julian Hirsh
That in a nutshell, is the situation between Pesach Rubenstein (David Julian Hirsh) and Sara Alexander (Susan May Pratt). They met when Sara was hired by Leah (Suzanne Toren) his aunt and substitute mother from the old country to bring hot broth to an ailing Pesach. (Aunt Leah not so incidentally is sublimating her own yearnings for Pesach beneath fervor for the religious and traditional way of life) Pesach's hacking and frequent coughs typify the effects of those early tenement conditions to exacerbate many a weak lung condition.
The friendship that flares into passion, the righteous Leah turning informer to Pesarch's father-in-law and long absent wife -- tales like this were the stuff of the Bintel Briefs that used to fill page after page of the Jewish Daily Forward so it's not surprising that the play was inspired by an actual case found in the memoirs of the Forward's founder, Abraham Cahan.
David Julian Hirsh and Susan May Pratt are appealing as the convention tossed young lovers. Their love scenes are beautifully realized and their big confrontation during the penultimate scene is quite powerful..
The Jewish Rep has supported their efforts with an attractive production. Mark Nayden's multi-functional set allows for smooth transitions between various tenement rooms, the jail, a bank along the East River and a park. Chris Dallos' lighting is appropriately gloomy, with one lovely scene where he creates a sunny meadow against three large Venetian blinds). Gail Cooper Hecht's costumes are true to the period.
The stories written down by immigrants who looked to the Bintel Brief editor for advice would indeed make an interesting collage drama of immigrant life or, better still, a modest musical like the Jewish Rep's fine recent production of The Jazz Singer. Even within the dramatic framework of a murder trial, however, Pesarch and Sara's story is not written compellingly enough for two acts and seventeen scenes. Too many of those scenes are overloaded with debate. To playwright Alan Glass's disclaimer that Love In a Thirsty Land, though based on fact is "a work of imagination" one can only add that it is also a failure of that imagination as well as solid craftsmanship. The characters tend towards stereotypes and their actions are often inconsistent. For example, not only is Leah's choice of Sara to look after the sick Pesach unclear but neither is there any explanation for her knowing Sara to begin with. The lawyer's role is so underwritten as to be superfluous. As for that cough -- it's such an obvious theatrical smoking gun that when it goes off it's more relief than surprise.
Love In a Thirsty Land was apparently a late in the season substitution for the previously announced
Syncopation. Too bad Mr. Glass, an erstwhile television commercial writer turned playwright, wasn't quite ready for his first prime time opportunity.
|LOVE IN A THIRSTY LAND
By Alan Glass
Directed by Robert Kalfin
Starring: Susan May Pratt and David Julian Hirsh; with
David Hess, Lee Beltzer and Suzanne Toren.
Set Design: Mark Nayden
Lighting Design: Chris
Costume Design: Gail Cooper Hecht
Sound Design: Margaret Pine
Playhouse 91, 316 E. 91st St. ( 831-2000, or www.jrt.org)
2/19/2000 with unannounced closing date; opening 2/27/2000
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 2/24/2000 performance