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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
By having the actors appear as different players in the Grosberg family saga, Mr. Goldfarb has given a nice sense of continuity to the forty-year apart events of each act. The first part takes place in 1961 and unfolds in the Toronto apartment above the fruit and vegetable store of Sarah Grosberg (J. Smith-Cameron) and her never seen husband Joe. The second part jumps forty years forward to China, where Sarah's granddaughter Jeanie (Smith-Cameron again) is nervously awaiting a call telling her that she can meet the second Sarah of the title, the baby she's adopted and will name after her grandmother.
The shift from one emotionally charged family event to another allows the playwright to explore the familial issues of parents loving their children enough to refrain from being too involved and controlling. The milestone propelling the 1961 segment is the engagement of Sarah's son Arthur (Andrew Katz) which builds to a mother-son relationship crisis. In the 2001 scenes, it's Jeanie's dad (Richard Masur) who's accompanied her to China, who has to learn to support his daughter's adventure without meddling as his mother meddled with his engagement.
The script calls for Sarah Grosberg to look older than 40ish, which may account for the hair style and dress that look more circa 1941 than 1961. In fact, a woman sitting near me didn't look at her program until the intermission and expressed surprise that the time frame wasn't 1940s. Nevertheless, Smith-Cameron's heavily accented English is fun to listen to and watch even when this first act smacks of the even earlier era of the Yiddish theater. But then I doubt that any play on the old Second Avenue circuit ever had a character like Vincent (Richard Masur, the second act's dad), the kindly Russian immigrant who is Sarah's sometime confidante, friend and weekly house cleaner. You see, Vincent, though long married, changes into a dress in the Grosberg home. Golfarb's intention for making this character a cross dresser is unclear though the very proper and uptight Sarah's matter-of-fact acceptance ("when you find good cleaning lady you do not let him go!") adds to the humor of Masur's affecting portrayal.
Besides supplying laughs via his sexual ambiguity, Vincent's main function is to run interference with Sarah's plan to break up Arthur's engagement to Rochelle (Lori Prince), a perfectly nice girl but one who doesn't fit her vision of her son's "marrying up." To protect Sarah from acting on her worst instincts, Vincent reveals a heretofore closely held secret about her past that turns the tea with strudel into a cliff-hanging tempest about Arthur's future career (philosopher or dentist?) and marriage (Rochelle or a girl more to Sarah's liking?). It should be noted that while Sarah resists Rochelle's charm, as played by Ms. Prince, she is a delightful mix of youthful eagerness to please and magnificent dignity.
While the second act settles the Arthur-Rochelle question, you are left to draw your own conclusions as to what career made him prosperous enough to pay the adoption fee. (Since single mother Jeanie is a child psychologist it seems to me that she'd have enough of an income to do so on her own). Be that as it may, the China scenes are more powerful and authentic than the Toronto tea party. No doubt this is because this part of the play is based on first hand experience (Goldfarb went along with his sister and father and has been very much part of the baby bonding process) whereas the earlier situation was invented to establish the orphaned grandmother-orphaned baby trajectory.
Smith-Cameron's Jeannie conveys the anxiety of waiting for her baby girl, the terror when she turns out to be sickly, and, eventually, the joy, of the days leading up to and following that first encounter with Sarah. There are a few missteps — the unnecessarily repeated scatological humor pertaining to Arthur , and the not very funny, untimely shrieks of laughter from Maggie who, with her husband Miles, is part of this crop of adopting parents (a switch by Prince and Katz from the engaged couple of the first act).
Mark Nelson's direction, like the play generally, is steadier and less fussy in the second act than the first. Set designer James Noone has lavished as much love on the production as the play's parents lavish on their children. Considering the dimensions of Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage II, the three set changes are quite a feat: a nicely detailed kitchen-dining room in Toronto, the Hilton Hotel room in China which metamorphoses into an evocation of The Great Wall. While it seems a lot of fuss to move so many props mid-scene, it pays off. That hokey Great Wall finale does leave you with a warm and fuzzy, glad I saw this feeling.
Mendes at the Donmar
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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