John P. McCarthy
- New York Critic
Pleasantville, NY – One way to interpret “Maybe Never Fell”, the new play by Axial Theatre’s artistic director Howard Meyer, is as an attempt to grapple with the dual meanings of the Yiddish term shiksa. At base it’s a slur against non-Jewish women, but a less pejorative usage has evolved. Shiksa can also denote a Gentile woman who is attracted to Jewish men or is the object of a Jewish man’s desire.
There’s much more going on in Meyer’s play—which premiered on Saturday night in Pleasantville—yet it all hinges on the possibility of a lasting romantic bond between a Jewish man and a non-Jewish woman. It’s how Meyer approaches a complex set of themes concerning Jewish identity in the present day, which is to say in wake of the 20th-century European Holocaust.
The shiksa in question is Mathilde (Mattie) Schiller, a comely twenty-six-year-old Protestant German whose relationship with a forty-year-old American, Max Weber, prompts both to reckon with their heritage, although each is two generations removed from World War II. The same holds for audience members, no matter their vintage or background, which indicates Meyer and his colleagues at Axial (including director Jenn Haltman) can count the project a success.
At the outset, as Mattie (Sara Hogrefe) prepares for a rendezvous with Max (David Lanson) in a Berlin hotel room, we quickly glean that the attractive, giddy blonde is pregnant and that the somewhat shlubby New Yorker who soon arrives is the father. Goy met boy in Nepal several months earlier, when both were seeking spiritual rejuvenation and breaks from less-than-fulfilling lives. Their brief Himalayan interlude was followed by email correspondence, during which Mattie revealed she was with child.
Their tender and humorously rendered reunion triggers lots of love-making, plus many revelations, recriminations and off-stage incidents—some of which involve Mattie’s father Manfred (Spencer Aste) and her eccentric best friend Gunther (Dominic Russo). Max has an unpleasant encounter with the Berlin police and visits the Buchenwald concentration camp. Mattie and Gunther attend some sort of wild Teutonic cultural celebration. Mostly, Max and Mattie try to figure out what to do about each other and their nascent child.
Mattie’s allure goes far beyond race, history or stereotypes; she’s sweet, sexy and genuinely loving. Casting the luminous Sara Hogrefe, who maintains her accent and poise throughout, was a stroke of genius. Her captivating performance and suitability for the role underscore the sense of suspicion built into the notion of a shiksa. Mattie seems too good to be true. She must have a dark, sinister underside. Is she some sort of Lorelei—a siren poised to lure Max to his death or its spiritual equivalent?
Max is wary for deeply ingrained and legitimate reasons having to do with her nationality and his own insecurities. “You picked me. Why?” he incredulously asks. Meyer answers the question in two ways. First, she isn’t perfect. Second, he affirms the sincerity of her love for Max. We have to conclude she genuinely wants to be with him and raise his child. I would argue something else is going on beneath the surface. Namely, Meyer is goading audience members to share in Max’s self-loathing and thereby confront their own anti-Semitism. The idea that she is too beautiful for him or that he isn’t worthy of her serves as a trigger for our own (hopefully latent) prejudices.
Meyer goes further by raising the possibility that this relationship will end up causing Mattie more harm than it does Max. The Jew might destroy the shiksa, not the other way around. On an interpersonal level, he suggests how easily the tables can be turned and how the roles of victim and perpetrator, oppressor and oppressed can be reversed.
Of course this is only one way of reading “Maybe Never Fell”. The play raises a host of issues. Chief among them is the notion of paternity—in the sense of taking ownership of one’s past actions and the legacy one has inherited. This process is never-ending and never easy. Meyer has Mattie express the idea when she tells Max: “It’s not about stopping thoughts it’s about facing up to them.”
This therapeutic dictum can be applied to the play itself, the Holocaust, and racial prejudice—to anything, in fact. We can always benefit from a little more analysis and clarification, but ultimately you have to act. It all comes down to confronting fears, dualities and ambiguities by making decisions. Max does so. Kudos to Howard Meyer and Axial Theatre for doing so—for daring to embrace a pain that will never go away.
Axial Theatre’s production of “Maybe Never Fell” runs through November 20, 2016 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, 8 Sunnyside Avenue, Pleasantville, NY.
Title Photo: Cast of Howard Meyer's "Maybe Never Fell," through Nov. 20 at Axial Theatre in Pleasantville. (from left) Sara Hogrefe as Mathilde Schiller, Dominic Russo as Gunther Holt, David Lanson as Max Webber, Spencer Aste as Manfred Schiller. Photo by Lynda Shenkman Curtis