Deft direction marks NJT’s season closer

From left, Terry Meddows, Justin Ivan Brown, Julie Layton, Bobby Miller perform in the New jewish Theatre’s production of ‘Jacob and Jack.’

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

The New Jewish Theatre closes out its 2011-2012 season with “Jacob and Jack,” acclaimed playwright James Sherman’s delightfully funny and nostalgic look at the decline of American Yiddish theater and the desperation of down-on-their luck actors.

Director and NJT Artistic Associate Edward Coffield brilliantly orchestrates the action, which presents six actors, each playing two separate roles—all set in the same iconic Chicago theater.

One group of characters interacts in the present, where Jack Shore (played by Bobby Miller), a once-promising stage actor who has been reduced to doing cheesy TV commercials, is preparing to perform a one-night-only tribute to his grandfather, a towering figure in American-Yiddish theater during its heydey. 

The other group of characters is in the same theater, but back in 1935, where Shore’s grandfather, Jacob Shemerinsky (also played by Miller) is appearing in what might be his final play. Shemerinsky has reached his peak just as the once-vibrant American-Yiddish theater scene is in steep decline, made worse by the Great Depression.

Shemerinsky is intensely envious of such Yiddish theater actors as Paul Muni, who along with others made the switch from the Yiddish live theater to Hollywood. But Shemerinsky was an old school Yiddish tummeler, strutting around the stage with exaggerated gestures, booming voice and manic bombast that could not be “cooled down” by Hollywood directors.

When Shore puts on a fake moustache to prepare for his tribute to his grandfather, a gig he does reluctantly, he is almost magically transformed from a mildly depressed, has-been actor to the self-assured, over-the-top incarnation of his grandfather.

Miller gives a stand-out, killer performance in his dual roles, handling the transition between the 2012 and 1935 characters superbly. Although each has a very different temperament, both share a roving eye and a penchant for aggressive flirtation with young actresses, much to the chagrin of their respective wives (performed by Kari Ely, who is married to Miller in real life). 

When Ely portrays the grandfather’s wife, she is spot on as a Yiddish actress who takes her craft seriously while being troubled by her famous husband’s obsession with a young actress (played by Julie Layton) who is young and beautiful, but devoid of acting talent. The wives’ relationships with their philandering husbands add another comedic dimension to the play as a marital farce. 

Good acting is also evident among the rest of the cast, including Terry Meddows, Justin Ivan Brown and Donna Weinsting.

As the play goes back and forth between the two eras in a constant stream of on-stage action, we see a nod to classic comedy in the flurry of opening and closing of doors among the three adjoining dressing rooms. Some of the scenes are quite acrobatic, and the skilled cast under Coffield’s deft direction carries it all off to the delight of the audience.

“Jack and Jacob” is a perfect comedic bookend to close the NJT’s season, combining an affecting look back at the declining days of American Yiddish theater, with a marvelous marital farce that delivers more than enough laughs to compensate for the tears that mourn the passing of a once great era in American Jewish entertainment.