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A CurtainUp Review

Meshugah by Elyse Sommer

Everything the philosopher Oswald Spengler predicted after the First World War has come to pass after the Second. Whether it is social, or spiritual, or a result of God's madness, I don't know. I know only what my eyes see. . .The world has turned meshugah
---Max Aberdam
Nobel prize short story and novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer's fans will recognize many elements of Enemies: a Love Story in his posthumously published novella, Meshugah (Yiddish for crazy). Theater pro that she is, Emily Mann (artistic director of the McCarter Theater and adapter of the story of two Harlem sisters sisters into a touching bio-drama called Having Our Say) has adapted Simger's tragic comedy with full awareness that, unlike Paul Mazursky's popular film of Enemies, , she had to confine this story to a less sprawling canvas. Thus she's eliminated some characters and honed in on the core love triangle (actually a polygon if you count two of the characters' legal spouses) that's as "meshuggah" as the world turned on its head by the Holocaust.

The bookish, tortured yet passionate Polish refugees of this unconventional love story are two men and a woman. Sixty-seven-year-old Max Aberdam's (Ben Hammer), horrendous World War II experiences have not affected his being" the kind of man who falls in love with every woman between twelve and eighty-nine", and who believes "the whole idea of monogamy is a big lie. . .invented by women and puritanical Christians." He has also become a successful financial advisor. In short, his life has been hard but he is still vibrantly alive. Aaron Greidinger (Ned Eisenberg), a middle aged, Singer-like Hasidic rabbi's son and writer for the The Jewish Daily Forward is his emotional opposite. Though he came to the United States before the war he lost his family and with them his lust for life. Most crucial to the story, there's Miriam Zalkind (Elizabeth Marvel), a sexy young survivor whose history is like a shadow within a shadow. She becomes both men's mistress, while married to another. As could only happen in a Singer story, this situation actually intensifies the affection between the men.

Director Loretta Greco, like Ms. Mann, concentrates on the characters without straining to replicate the flavorful aura of the Upper West Side refugee life that pervade this like so many of Singer's stories. In keeping with Ms. Mann's streamlined plot, Ms. Greco relies on James Vermeulen's lighting to shift the action to the various locales. As two of the actors play double roles (Barbara Andres as Max's wife and a character identified "Woman who Tells" and Ted Koch as a waiter and Miriam's gun-wielding husband Stanley, aa few props work overtime to suggest locales that include the Forward office , Max's apartment, a cafeteria, Miriam's apartment and one scene in Israel.

While the staging is simple and spare, the performances are big and powerful. Elizabeth Marvel, an actress who has more than lived up to her last name every time I've seen her, portrays Miriam with the sort of luminosity and passion that makes her story feel like your first ever blow-to-the-heart fictional encounter with a Holocaust survivor. Eisenberg and Hammer also render their roles with believability. There's nothing "meshugah" but everything to admire in the way these actors once again heighten our appreciation for Singer's genius for setting up a tragic situation and then skillfully and courageously also make it a comedy.

Mr. Singer began his 1978 Nobel Prize acceptance speech as follows: "In their despair a number of those who no longer have confidence in the leadership of our society look up to the writer, the master of words. They hope against home that the man of talent and sensitivity can perhaps rescue civilization. Maybe there is a spark of the prophet in the artist after all." Everyone involved with this production, deserves our thanks for bringing some of that spark to the stage of the Kirk Theater.

Written by Emily Mann; based on Isaac Bashevis Singer's novel of the same name.
Directed by Loretta Greco
Cast: Barbara Andres (Priva, Woman Who Tells), Ned Eisenberg (Aaron Greidinger), Ben Hammer (Max Aberdam), Ted Koch (Waiter, Stanley Bardeles), Elizabeth Marvel (Miriam Zalkind)
Set Design: Michael Brown
Costume Design: Valerie Marcus
Lighting Design: James Vermeulen
Sound Design & Music: Robert Kaplowitz.
Running time: 90 minutes without intermission
Naked Angles at The Kirk @ Theatre Row, 410 W 42 St. 212-279-4200
5/07/03-5/13/03; opening 5/15/03
Tuesday through Friday at 8:00pm; Saturday at 3:00pm and 8:00pm; and Sunday at 7:00pm
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 5/14 press performance

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