Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, a new musical by Hannah Moscovitch and Ben Caplan from Canada’s 2b Theatre Company, is the story of two Jewish refugees fleeing Romania in 1908. Chaim and Chaya Moscovitch meet in an immigration holding facility in Halifax, Canada. Chaim is 19, hardworking, gentle, and eager to start anew—his entire family has been killed in a pogrom. He is also ready to fall in love. Chaya is 24, practical and hard-nosed. She lost the husband of her youth, Yochai, to typhus and, soon after, their child as well.
Chris Weatherstone and Mary Fay Coady bring the unlikely and mismatched couple alive in performances that allow memory to leak across moments of joy, fear and anger. Weatherstone shows the fight and will to thrive in the soft-spoken, ever-optimistic Chaim. Coady allows us to peer into the pain that lies just below the chill that Chaya cloaks over herself and her marriage.
The musical, directed with originality by Christian Barry, incorporates the actors as performers as well. When he is not playing Chaim, Weatherstone plays the saxophone, clarinet, banjo and sings. Coady, when not playing Chaya, is the violinist of the band and vocalizes as well. The band, so integral to the show, is rounded out by Jamie Kronick on drums and Graham Scott on piano and accordion.
Perhaps the most crucial element is the singing and dancing narrator of the show, played by Caplan, who co-wrote the songs with Barry. His exuberant performance blows the musical out of the dark waters of its painful story and brings in intellectual parody and social commentary alongside its musical range and eclecticism. The actors, with minimal props, act out scenes that alternate with Caplan’s narration.
Moscovitch draws her characters, based on her own ancestors, with a sure touch. At a second meeting that Chaim has arranged through Chaya’s father, she gets right down to business. “What kind of a wife are you looking for?” she asks. And Chaim replies simply, “You.” Chaya tells her suitor about her broken bottom teeth, her temper, and her cooking which leaves something to be desired. But when she says she is willing to do her father’s bidding and marry him, Chaim turns away. “It’s not enough,” he says. Chaya pours him a second cup of tea and orders, “Drink.” With that, the matter is settled.
Although they marry, the chill between the couple deepens, particularly on their wedding night, when a shy Chaim, seeking affirmation, asks about Yochai, and then reveals that he knows that Chaya was really Yochai’s second choice. “May God curse you!” she cries out. “May he kill your firstborn!” With this curse hanging in the air, Caplan and his band leap into high-octane, exuberant klezmer wedding music and dance. “Can these people be happy?” Caplan laments, taking a sly dig at Jewish history—“they’re so out of practice.”
Caplan’s music moves from folk to klezmer to Hebrew cantillation, at times taking a clapping audience with him. Sometimes the hippie and at other times the Hasid, Caplan celebrates “fucking” in learned verbal riffs that explain the conjugal duties of a husband in Jewish law and are filled with other observations about Jewish legal arcana. And interestingly, it is sex, or rather the child it produces, that brings warmth to the show—first to Chaya and eventually to the marriage. “And for the first time,” Caplan says, “in this big, cold country, Chaya feels some warmth!”
The shared burden and joys of parenting cements and brings salve to this tortured couple. After their child, Sam, survives typhus, there will be a second child. Stories are told about Sam’s bar mitzvah, and about Sam’s son, who will be the first Moscovitch to attend university, and about other progeny of the couple.
The story of Chaim and Chaya is a story of hardship and survival. It is the immigrant story, and it is the story of 60 million refugees worldwide who currently scramble for ports of safety and shelter just like the Moscovitches, carrying the burdens of their histories as they run from the wars and violence.
In every new city it tours, the 2b Theatre Company contacts organizations that shelter immigrants and brings those groups and immigrants to the production to tell their stories in talkbacks. Old Stock is about the present as much as it is about the past.
The 2b Theatre Company production of Old Stock: An Immigrant Love Story runs through April 22 at 59E59 Theaters (59 E. 59th St., between Park and Madison). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $25–$75 and may be purchased by calling Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or online at www.59E59.org.