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|A CurtainUp Review
Sam and Itkeh
Now in its 25th season, the American Jewish Theatre has provided theater goers with musicals and dramas, comedies and tragedies. Artistic director Stanley Brechner has taken the sort of risks that inevitably bring some failures along with the successes. The basement space makes staging a challenge and less than perfect sightlines for the audience. Yet, more often than not a visit to this scrappy little Chelsea venue is a rewarding experience.
That brings us to Jack LaZebnik's new play, Sam and Itkeh. While Marilyn Sokol and David Little do their best to breathe fire and feeling into their parts, they're as trapped in this repetitious and predictable kvetch of a play as their characters are in their relationship.
To sum up what it's about, let me quote from the advance billing: "a funny and rueful story of a Jewish couple, retired to Phoenix, Arizona, whose 50 year relationship is threatened by a secret in the past"
The couple has indeed had a 50 year relationship and yes, they've left the cold winters of Jackson, Michigan for the more hospitable climate of Arizona. "Funny?" If this is funny, so is a tooth ache. "Rueful?" Furious, almost demented anger is a more apt description, especially of Itkeh.
That leaves us to deal with the "secret" that poses the threat giving this play its dramatic center. By this time, you won't be surprised to learn that the secret is hardly a threat surfacing after 50 years, but a canker that has been locking Itkeh and Sam into the sort of marriage psychologist Edmund Bergler once dubbed as "the unhappily undivorced." The secret centers on the man she met and fell in love with on the boat carrying her to America during the early years of this century. The fact that he's Catholic and she's Jewish puts the kibosh on the romance. And so, prodded by her bossy older brother she marries Sam who loves her even though he knows he is not her first choice ( so much for the "secret"). Typical of immigrant husbands of the era he keeps her pregnant and in the kitchen and stifles her attempt to educate herself.
All these frustrating memories, and a pitiful paucity of funny or happy ones, are unpacked for us in a series of flashbacks. Since Sam is retired from his junkyard business, there's apparently more time than ever for bickering and recrimination. An unseen maid hints that Itkeh's rantings are partly exacerbated by hardening of the arteries. Other unseen players--Itkeh and Sam's successful children and grandson--receive and return phone calls which one senses have been made numerous times before. The end is as unsurprising as the "secret."
Itkeh and Sam plays out on a more handsomely staged set (by William Schroder) than another play about an immigrant couple recently seen at the Theater of the New City. (Mickey's Home) Bare bones as that production was, it succeeded in lifting the older immigrant couple play out of the realm of the predictable. Like this play it was not cheerful, but the mystery it promised was delivered.