NJT opens season with nostalgic, warmly comedic journey

BY SUSAN MARGOLIS BALK, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

At the beginning of the New Jewish Theatre’s production of Chaim’s Love Song, Richard Lewis as the title character Chaim, a mid-twentieth-century Russian Jew, tells a joke to a tense and frightened Midwestern woman half his age in a tiny Brooklyn park near his apartment. The joke goes something like this:

In the old days, two Russian immigrants are waiting and waiting for clearance at Ellis Island. Finally, they both sit down on a bench, tense and tired and too shy to talk. After an hour, one man erupts: “Oy!”

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The other one responds immediately “You’re right! That’s exactly what I was thinking!”

The joke’s familiarly reassuring lingo and warmth (delivered with flawless timing and accent by Lewis) instantly draw the Jews in the audience into Chaim’s world and set the tone of the play.

But there is no familiarity for poor Kelly, played by Katie Consamus, who just thinks he’s trying to pick her up.

The rigidity of her armor initially pushes the audience away, although it doesn’t faze Chaim, who shmoozes on and on sweetly and patiently, teaching her the meaning of a few Yiddish words and listening to her first blurts of personal information.

She hates the unfamiliar world of Brooklyn; she misses her family back home in Iowa; her husband is always working and pays no attention to her.

Sound familiar?

Chaim, of course, recognizes her plight as his own. After all, she too — a schoolteacher from Iowa — is a stranger in a strange land. But his friendliness alarms her.

It turns out she’s alarmed by most things. In the course of the play she, the only non-Jewish character, will be transformed by his friendliness, legacy of suffering and his wisdom.

A joke he tells her about a woman in the hospital for a bypass operation mirrors the bewildering plight of the involuntary outsider brilliantly.

Kelly’s transformation at the end of the play is a bit contrived. But it is the sweet fantasy of playwright Marvin Chernoff that the wisdom, humor, suffering, philosophy, resilience, optimism — the gift of Yiddishkeit — will be understood and treasured by the outside world.

And who are we in the audience to argue?

We are charmed and enchanted by Chaim and his friends and family; and we are delighted that eventually Kelly not only shares our enchantment but warms up and goes beyond it.

Marvin Chernoff’s dialect jokes are the iambic pentameter of this love song.

There are moments when the play threatens to descend into schtick, but it never does. Director Deanna Jent understands fully that it’s that teetering towards self-indulgence which makes the play powerful.

She sets the timing so that each joke, each quotation of Hillel’s wise words, each revelation of the wounds from hate-driven cruelties, moves the play forward.

So much reminiscing, humor, schmaltz, pain and momentary survival!

At a time when Yiddish is disappearing, these perfectly accented echoes of our grandparents are so spot-on that we believe we’re listening to the real voices of our real grandparents. We indulge ourselves in remembrance of things past and snuggle into the warmth of Chaim’s Love Song as into our Bubbe’s hand-made afghan.

‘Chaim’s Love Song’: The New Jewish Theatre production is performed at Clayton High School through Sept. 28. Tickets available at www.brownpapertickets.com or at 314-442-3283.