Review: “The Immigrant” at Penguin Rep Theatre

John P. McCarthy 

  • OnStage CT/NY Critic

Stony Point, NY – Penguin Rep kicks off its 39th season in customary fashion with a relevant, thought-provoking work. Mark Harelik’s “The Immigrant” tells the story of his paternal grandfather’s transformation from Russian peasant to Texas businessman, from émigré outsider to bona fide American. 

The play doesn’t go as far or cut as deeply as many of the topical pieces that Penguin Rep has mounted in recent years, largely because of how it is structured. Yet even if it comes up a little short, it’s a journey well worth taking. 

 Photo: Penguin Rep Theatre

Photo: Penguin Rep Theatre

If there’s something incongruous about the image of a Jewish man dressed in black wool pushing a banana cart through a small Texas town circa 1909, that’s precisely the point of this fish-out-of-water family history, chock full of comedy and pathos. (First produced back in 1988, the play has also been turned into a musical.) The sight of Harelik’s grandfather, Haskell, peddling bananas in the hot sun as he’s doing at the beginning of the play wouldn’t seem extraordinary if the setting were the streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side and not a dusty lane in Hamilton, Texas (population 1,203).  

Turns out Haskell, fleeing the pogroms in Russia, entered America through the port of Galveston, as many European Jews did during that period. Most made their way north and east to urban centers. Haskell decided to settle in Hamilton, where he was the only Jew and where making a life for himself was not going to be easy. 

As we discover, the kindness of one local couple helps him survive and thrive. Accordingly, the four-character play is also the story of a long friendship between two families. When Haskell stops his cart outside the home of banker Milton Perry and his wife Ima, they are taken aback. What to make of this bedraggled foreigner plying his edible, tropical wares? Later in town, Ima buys some bananas from him and before you know it he’s renting a room in their house.  

It doesn’t take long for Milton to see that the hard-working Haskell has a flare for business and so he lends him the money to diversify his offerings. Eventually, after his young wife Leah has joined him from Russia, Haskell opens up a store with Milton’s backing and over time, the business and the friendship both prosper. 

Ima is the catalyst. Her kindheartedness and strong Christian faith lead her to reach out to Haskell and, in turn, spur her unbelieving and casually anti-Semitic husband to give him a chance. Tina Johnson, a native Texan, wears the role as comfortably as she did her part in “The Savannah Disputation” at Penguin Rep two seasons ago. She’s an excellent actress with great timing and the ability to project a warmth that blankets everything around her. And, Bill Phillips, who also appeared in “The Savannah Disputation,” nearly manages to turn the pinched, acerbic Milton into a likeable figure. 

The folkloric superstitions that marked Ima’s rural upbringing are a point of commonality between she and Leah. In addition to feeling lonely and isolated, Leah is deeply disturbed by the degree to which she thinks Haskell has shed his own religious identity and assimilated. Leah is such a dour figure—at least initially—that she brings to mind Olya Povlatsky, the gloom-and-doom Russian lady played by Kate McKinnon on SNL’s Weekend Update. And, unfortunately, there’s not much Melissa Miller can do to dispel that impression.

Yet it becomes clear that Haskell has not turned away from his Jewish faith in any appreciable way. He does his best to maintain their traditions and rituals. What weighs on his conscience is the shame he feels at having run away from his homeland and his people in the first place. He is driven by the determination not to experience that fear again and by the realization that he must confront any future dread head-on. 

Courage is not Haskell’s most pronounced quality during Act 1 however. In fact, although one might not realize it from my description thus far, “The Immigrant” is brimming with humor and Haskell is something of a clownish figure. Many chuckles are wrung from his struggle to communicate in Yiddish while he teaches himself English. These jokes are contained in a string of short scenes that offer an earnest, homespun, brand of comedy that borders on cutesy and whose charms are palpable yet fleeting. The existential threats Haskell faces are talked about rather than dramatized and consequently the first half of the play is fairly placid and conflict-free.

Director Joe Brancato, Penguin Rep’s founding artistic director, and lead Jason Liebman accentuate this by frequently depicting Haskell as almost buffoonish. Rather than function as comic relief, this masks the gravitas in the character and whets your appetite for a more serious investigation of Haskell’s plight. 

This comes, along with flashes of Haskell’s nobility and strong moral fiber, after intermission when a clear contrast emerges between the struggling, striving man on the run (with echoes of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp) and the Haskell of Act 2—a patriarch with financial and spiritual heft. The skill of Liebman’s performance is evidenced by the fact he is able to embody this maturation without the aid of any conspicuous makeup. (Per usual, the design and technical credits on this Penguin Rep production are solidly professional.) 

Still, Liebman’s creditable turn cannot erase the fact that “The Immigrant” suffers from a structural imbalance: the interesting clash of ideas and the only moments of real dramatic tension come too late in the proceedings to be satisfyingly explored. In the play’s pivotal scene—also it’s best written and acted—Haskell and Milton have a weighty political argument during Seder dinner. Their heated discussion concerns the rise of fascism in Europe in the late 1930s, with Milton espousing an isolationist view and Haskell favoring American intervention. Their disagreement over how best to react to atrocity and injustice spills over into their personal history, threatening their friendship.

Playwright Harkelik cogently presents their viewpoints and wrings feeling out of the tensions, without letting the story verge into sentimentality. You just wish it came sooner because he doesn’t have time to develop the ideas. In effect, he is asking how we honor the fact that we are a nation of immigrants. With immigration such a prominent issue during this political season—with talk of building walls along our borders and barring entry to everyone of a single faith—“The Immigrant” tells us that tolerance and compassion should be our default response to people who are different than us, whom we do not fully understand and whom we may fear. This is the riskiest reaction perhaps, but it’s the one most likely to lead to a positive outcome. And, finally, in a nod to Milton Perry’s point of view, it doesn’t entail abandoning all reason and caution. 

This is a profound message, no matter how imperfectly it is communicated in the text. The Harelik’s American story, like millions of others, is bound to inspire faith in the future of our melting-pot nation. Likewise, the existence of theater groups such as Penguin Rep that endeavor to entertain while tackling this and similarly vital topics is a cause for optimism. 

Penguin Rep’s production of “The Immigrant” runs through June 12, 2016 at 7 Crickettown Road, Stony Point, NY.