Thomas Burns Scully
Sometimes when you review a show, you find yourself stretching for an angle, a way to make it interesting, a way to grip the reader and make the production stand out for one reason or another. Sometimes your job is done for you, like today, because the title of the show I’m reviewing is so forthright about what the show is, that it leaves nothing and everything to the imagination. With that in mind, please comport yourselves, dear reader, as I review ‘Death of a Salesman in Yiddish’. Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like. The play ‘Death of a Salesman’, performed in the historical language of the Ashkenazi Jews. Talk about a way to keep a play fresh.
Arthur Miller’s seminal play was at one time the most scandalous, heart-rending thing on Broadway. Nowadays, its an oft-performed community theatre staple, the bane of many a high-school literature student’s existence, and a show likely due for a revival on Broadway in the next seven years starring someone you know from films. The plot, for the benefit of any recently re-naturalized elderly hermits among my readership, concerns Willie Loman. He is an aging traveling salesman slowly failing to reconcile the delusions of grandeur he has built up his whole life with the ever-encroaching cold frost of reality. In his march towards the death of either his sanity, his ideals, or himself he deals with the life-failures of his sons, his own sheltered sense of inadequacy and the decay of the American dream.
This Off-Broadway revival, produced by the New Yiddish Rep, is based on Joseph Buloff’s 1951 Yiddish translation of the play. For the benefit of non-Yiddish speakers, such as myself, there are supertitles that translate the play back to English as the actors perform. The staging is spartan, with the play’s regular fantasy and flashback sequences indicated by way of lighting and music changes. The effect is… well, fascinating. Placing the characters in to a Jewish context is completely unjarring, perhaps not surprising, given that in earlier drafts of Miller’s work Loman was called Schoenzeit. Even in English the play identifies easily with the Brooklyn Jewish mind-set, so performing it in Yiddish comes off as the most natural thing in the world.
The performances are excellent, Moshe Yassur having assembled a stable crop of Yiddish speaking actors. Suzanne Toren is a superlative Linda, the Loman wife and mother, starved of love, attention, and, well, most things in general. Daniel Kahn is a sturdy and upstanding Biff, proving an accomplished dramatic foil to the character of Willie. Lev Herskovits, in his Off-Broadway debut as Happy, is especially good, expressing an interestingly sleazy naiveté. His performance is made more impressive when you take in to account that prior to this show he didn’t speak Yiddish. An actor so good he can act in a language he doesn’t know. Not bad at all.
Of course, this, as does any, production of ‘Salesman’ rests squarely on the shoulders of the actor playing Willie. In this case, Avi Hoffman (continuing a line of notable Hoffmans who have played the role. His work is terrific, you are convinced that he could collapse from exhaustion at any moment, the only thing keeping him going is his Herculean grip on the last scraps of his dignity and a prevailing sense of unreality. Quite a treat.
Now, we hit something of a dichotomy. What’s the show like if you don’t speak Yiddish? Well, I’ve basically answered that already, it is good, a more than serviceable rendition of one of the most lauded plays of the 20th Century. Reading the supertitles is distracting, yes, your brain has to work that much harder, but the show is still wholly palatable. That said, it was a welcome mental rest when the play took occasion to be in English again (when in conversation with distinctly non-Jewish characters, the play would revert to its native tongue), but for anyone willing to concentrate this is not an issue.
The more interesting question, as far as I’m concerned, is: What’s the show like if you DO speak Yiddish? Because I can’t tell you. Because I don’t. It’s entirely possible that the actors speak the text badly, are unconvincing and deathly dull. I can guess and say that I’m pretty sure that they weren’t, emotional engagement is the same in every language, but I can’t say for certain. And I find that quite interesting, because I saw this play, watched the whole thing, and yet, in a way, I still haven’t seen it. Yiddish speakers in the audience saw a completely different show to the one I did, and that idea of spectatorial dissonance is fascinating. If anyone who saw the show and speaks Yiddish wants to comment below, please be my guest.
From my own POV, however, I can tell you that I enjoyed the show. The Yiddish/Jewish element increases the feelings of isolation and societal pressure in Willie and his family in a way that seems both inherent, yet also novel. The job of art is to make familiar things new and new things familiar; this rendition does both, in its own mysterious way. Avi Hoffman is an incredibly sturdy pillar to rest the action on, and the cast orbit around him with turbulent grace. Moshe Yassur has created a production here that anyone would be proud of. If you’re looking for a unique theatre experience that you can also take your Jewish great-aunt to, this is it. And even if you don’t have a Jewish great-aunt, there is still more than enough reason for you to attend.
‘Death of a Salesman’ in Yiddish runs at the Castillo Theatre on 42nd Street through to November 22nd. It is produced by the New Yiddish Rep. Tickets start at $50, $20 for students. Full details and show schedule available at newyiddishrep.org
This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded in Time Out NY and the New York Times, and his writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man.
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