Tuesday, 6 October 1998

Conversations with my Father, 6 Oct 1998

By Herb Gardner 
Saltpillar Theatre
St. Martins Theatre until October 18

"English don't do the job," quips the Jewish mother when her husband insists she speak English in Conversations With My Father. English can't turn an answer into a question like Yiddish can. There is an enormous difference between, "Wake up!" and the Yiddish phrase, "Sleep faster. We need the pillow."

Herb Gardner is a delightfully laconic, witty, urbane New York Jew who writes about the underdog, "the endearing outcasts" of this relentless city, such as the two old geezers in I'm Not Rappaport, which was performed by the MTC in 1993.

In this play, directed economically by Caroline Stacey, Gardner draws mercilessly on his own Russian-Jewish background, plundering his fraught relationship with his father for every painful episode from babyhood to Pop's death.

At two years of age, Charlie (Ernie Schwartz) has not spoken and his mother calls him "a piece of meat with eyes". His father demands baby Charlie astonish them with the first words, "I'm Charlie Ross and I don't take no shit from nobody," which, fantastically, he does.

Charlie is revisiting his life with his father, Eddie Ross nee Goldberg, after dad's death. Eddie (Jonathan Glickfeld) was obsessed with becoming American. He bought a bar in Canal Street in the south of Manhattan, changed his name and language, finally eliminated all Jewish religion and renamed his wife's (Nici Gray) Yiddish menu as Mulligan Stew and Apple Pie. She decided to get "wacky and deaf" to cope.

The bar is peopled with US wartime immigrant eccentrics. Zaretsky (Maurie Johns) is a star of the Yiddish Theatre, much admired by Charlie and maligned by Eddie who believes all artists are Luftmenchen: Airpeople.

The others include Blind Hannah (Faye Joske), old Nick (Ian Rubenstein) who believes he is Santa, Finney the Irish bookie (Jacob Oberman) and Italian standover man, Scalso (Pip Mushin) and his Irish thug (Elliot Epstein).

The play is really about a man who has never come to terms with his father who was a irrational, unpredictable and mercurial, a "Switcheroo" who "lived at the top of his voice and the edge of his nerves".

It is Eddie who is the centre of the story and the adult Charlie pays homage to him in his career as an award-winning novelist. He simply canot understand or really love him even after his death. He wants all the misunderstanding and grief to evaporate.

The performances are very good but Glickfeld is a standout as Eddie. He is credible and passionate but charming and lovable - which is what Gardner wrote.

By Kate Herbert

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