NJT’s ‘Conversations’ worth talking about


Talk, talk, talk – the late Herb Gardner’s powerful, poignant play Conversations with My Father brims over with words, words that bring to life moments that are, by turns, wrenching, hilarious and searing. The New Jewish Theatre opened its 13th season last week in a production directed by Sidney J. Friedman that is, in a word, magnificent.

The play looks at the lives of three generations of a Jewish family from 1936 through 1976. Every scene takes place in a neighborhood bar in New York City, said to be similar to one that Gardner’s father owned. A box filled with old family documents sits on stage in every scene, reminding us that the tangible artifacts we leave behind pale in comparison to the vivid memories those around us hold in their hearts.


Characters major and minor come and go through the door to the bar – which changes names with the passing years — but one dominates almost every conversation: Tavern owner Eddie Ross (born Yitzhak Goldberg), a man who can’t make peace with his horrific past or his uncertain future so he makes trouble for people in his present, particularly his youngest son, Charlie.

Peter Mayer expertly inhabits the role of Eddie, nailing a full range of emotions with a breathtaking physicality fine-tuned to match each moment. With tenderness tinged with frustration, Mayer chides his infant son for refusing to talk and then beams with pride when the kid comes out with a profane slogan that the father favors. Mayer switches seamlessly from hospitable barkeep to street fighter when a guy tries to shake him down for protection money. He speaks lovingly of lights is his wife’s dark hair and then mocks her with the insider’s cruelty that we reserve for family members. He brags about a deal he has cut with God “to keep Him calm” and then in a moment of deep loss, rages and denounces God forever. Mayer’s silences are as eloquent as his spoken lines.

Billy Kelly (Joey) and B. Weller (Charlie) are strong as the grown sons who converse at various decibel levels with Eddie. Jimmy McEvoy and Drew Redington as younger versions of the sons also turn in performances to be proud of, with Redington as adept at comedic lines as words spoken in anger. Kari Ely shines as Gusta, putting up with plenty from Eddie as she protects herself by practicing selective hearing.

Alan Knoll offers a convincing Zaretsky, a droll actor who rents a room over the tavern and keeps Eddie’s fantasies of instant assimilation grounded in reality. Terry Meddows delights as an Irish bookie. Kevin Beyer, Nancy Crouse, Bob Harvey and Stephen Peirick complete the cast, all with fine performances.

Andrew McCandless deserves a nod for serving as assistant director. Michele Friedman Siler designed the costumes, all of which reveal much about the individual characters, especially her choices for Crouse as Hannah. Glenn Dunn’s lighting deftly shifts the attention as the action moves from present to past and back again. Dunsi Dai’s set is masterful, complete with wooden bar, four stools, two booths, two tables, a juke box, photos and local art on the walls, plenty of patriotic bunting and a 52-light flamingo chandelier.

A non-speaking part that deserves mention is Morris the Moose, played by a magnificent mounted moose head making its first stage appearance. I know from personal experience that this particular moose — whose day job is hanging on the wall at O’Connell’s Pub — is a good listener, no matter what the topic of conversation.

Conversations with my father

WHO: The New Jewish Theatre

WHEN: Evening and matinee performances on Wednesdays, Thursdays and weekends through Oct. 18

WHERE: The Main Auditorium at Clayton High School, 2 Mark Twain Circle

HOW MUCH: $30 to $34

TICKETS: Online at www.newjewishtheatre.org or 314-442-3283