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A CurtainUp Review

A Majority of One

Far away places
With strange sounding names
Going to China or maybe Siam
I want to see for myself those faraway places I've been reading about

Those lines from a long ago song introduces us to the endearing heroine of the 1959 comedy drama A Majority of One which had a 551-performance run at the Shubert and won a Tony for Gertrude Berg. The far away place to which its unlikely romantic heroine, a zaftig Brooklyn widow, journeys is Japan where her daughter and foreign service officer son-in-law have been posted. It is a country Mrs. Jacoby doesn't exactly dream about but still thinks of as the enemy responsible for the death of her son during World War II. But surprise, surprise. Just a few days into the two-week steamship voyage to Japan, Mrs. Jacoby's bitterness begins to melt as she strikes up a friendship with a decided romantic edge with Mr. Asano, a millionaire Japanese widower.

Since plays will be plays, especially those by seasoned movie and television writers like Leonard Spigelglass, this East-West romance runs the gamut of stumbling blocks. What's more, this being a play of an era hospitable to the well-made entertainment genre, the crossing of the cultural and emotional divide spans an hour and twenty minute first act, plus a one-hour second act.

It's a tad slow, but it's all part of this loving tribute to an old hit which for all its hokeyness holds up a lot better than one might expect, especially so when one considers another East-West play currently at Lincoln Center, R. J. Guerney's Far East. That new play came off, at least according to two CurtainUp opinions, (see links) with a decidedly uninvolving, derivative flavor. On the other hand, the Spigelglass revival despite being very much an artifact of its theatrical era, succeeds in providing audiences with a look back at an old-fashioned play in the best sense. It is probably at least fifteen minutes too leisurely but it still delivers lots of heart with themes about understanding between countries and individuals that are timeless. Most interestingly sensible casting choices, make this A Majority of One more believable and up-to-date than either the original play or the movie it seeded. (See link to our movie column).

The original casting for this play was half brilliant -- Gertrude Berg, a fine actress, was known to millions as the star of the radio comedy The Goldbergs. Her performance was indeed Tony-worthy. The other half of the casting was funny but ludicrous, with the very dignified and English Cedric Hardwick playing Mr. Asano. The revival's Mrs. Jacoby, Phyllis Newman, eschews Ms. Berg's flamboyance. Anyone who saw her in Nicky Silver's The Food Chain knows she can be hold-your-sides, out-for-big-laughs funny. She here keeps herself in check to build on her character's big-hearted, common sense intelligence, her low key self-assertiveness and yearning. I wish she'd fought against that ugly brillo-grey hairdo which, though authentic, was hardly the only hairdo worn by women in their fifties during that period. I'm all for allowing actresses to age realistically but I don't believe anything was written into this script demanding that this lady be quite so dowdy.

As for Mr. Asano, to finally have the Asian hero played, as he should be, by an Asian actor is what gives this production its real sense of being up-to-date and authentic at long last. To have Randall Duk Kim to play the part is especially fortuitous. Mr. Kim is a charmer who could win over any widow, even without his millions. The scene when Mr. Asano insists that Mrs. Jacoby dance with him is one of the evening's delights. Mrs. Jacoby's visit to his home when she agrees to wear a beautiful kimono but never relingquishes her hat and black bag and his immediate return visit (as Japanese etiquette demands) to her daughter and son-in-law's apartment are the evening's high points of hilarity.

As good as the two leads are, Julia Dion and Danny Gurwin as the liberal minded young diplomatic couple who turn out to be not quite ready to have an interracial marriage in their family are weak links. They're attractive enough but both display a serious voice projection problems. I was particularly disappointed to see Ms. Dion deliver a less than top caliber performance since I know what she can do from having seen her at the Berkshire Theatre Festival where she was outstanding both in Wilder, Wilder and Quills (see links). Elaine Grollman as Mrs. Jacoby's Brooklyn friend, Mrs. Rubin, makes the most of a part written for incidental humor and to make a major thematic point. Her remarks about "undesirable elements" moving into the neighborhood provide the playwright with the means to play that obvious bigotry against the consciously suppressed but emotionally unresolved feelings later mirrored by the "liberal" young Blacks. The four other supporting cast members are excellent.

Director Richard Sabellico has gone all out to provide the production values associated with those well-made plays of long ago and far away. An upstage scrim changes images with each of the five set changes. The transitional voice overs keep this moving around of scenery from getting awkward.

Judging from the full house and enthusiasm of the audience at the last preview performance I attended, A Majority of One should enjoy a reasonable run. Its niche audience of middle-aged and older New Yorkers should enlist their children to journey with them to Manhattan's Far East to have a first-hand look at this full-featured slice of social and theatrical history.

To read our two reviews of Far East hereand here

By Leonard Spigelgass
Directed by Richard Sabellico
Starring Phyllis Newman and Randall Duk Kim; with Ako, Konrad Aderer, Julia Dion, Danny Gurwin, Mio Takada and Elaine Grollman
Set design: Todd Edward Ivins
Costume design: Gail Baldoni
Lighting design: Richard Latta
Sound design: Joshua Bender-Dubiel
Jewish Repertory Theatre, Playhouse 91, 316 East 91St Street (212/ 831-2000)
Previews 1/16/99; opening 1/24/99
Closing 2/16/99 despite excellent reviews
Seen 1/24/99 and reviewed 1/25/99 by Elyse Sommer

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