Jewish comic drama is flimsy, muddled

Posted: November 16, 2012

Tiny, sturdy Sylvia Kauders' Mama has the stoic face of thousands of Jewish grandmothers before her. When she announces, deadpan in a fluffy bathrobe, to her son Ronnie, "Did you hear who's coming? The Momzer," the audience for Marty's Back in Town, a new play by attorney/author Norman Shabel at the Skybox at the Adrienne, laughs. A momzer is a jerk, a thorn in your side, and the audience knows: These are our mishpucha, our kind of people, and this is a comic family drama that will be sprinkled with liberal doses of Yiddish, in which crazy relatives will argue, eat, and reconcile, Neil Simon-style.

Except it's not. To be sure, there's Yiddish, meals, arguments, and reconciliations, but these signposts and a nostalgic New York setting (the play inexplicably occurs in 1984) are just about all Shabel's muddled, repetitive writing has in common with Simon's.

Marty is the family's abusive, exiled black sheep, returned suddenly from California with a heart condition. But there are so many characters here with so many competing and nonessential story lines it's hard to keep everyone straight. Consider this: Despite a nine-actor cast and a plot about sibling rivalries, Shabel includes a brother-in-law, Lenny, and passing mention of a sister, Jackie, neither of whom ever appears, and whose absences are never explained.

Barry Brait's direction relies mostly on blocking. I suppose it's tough to know how to handle a script with so many vertiginous and inconsistent mood swings, but he's not helped by casting that places an underrehearsed, 60ish Kenneth McGregor - stammering his lines throughout the production - in the role of mid-40s Ronnie, supposed to be the younger brother of Ethan Lipkin's Marty, himself just on the cusp of 50.

Kirsten Quinn, as younger sister Susan, and Dana Kreitz, as Ronnie's teenage daughter Lexie, manage to wrestle believable, if flimsy, characters from Shabel's work. But as for the rest of it, as my own Yiddishe grandma used to say, "Feh."


Marty's Back in Town

Playing at Skybox at the Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom St. Through Dec. 2. Tickets: $45. Information: 1-800-838-3006 or martysbackintown.com.

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