Money

Chasing the American Dream

The Golden Bride ("Di Goldene Kale"), a joyful operetta from 1923 performed on the compact stage at the Museum of Jewish Heritage by the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene, is set in a small Russian village and begins with a tongue-in-cheek song about money. In Yiddish with English and Russian supertitles, the cast sings “Oi, Oi, The Dollar” when Goldele, a young woman who has been raised by another family learns that her father, who moved to America when she was a child, has died and left her a fortune. Thus begins a tale that folds real-world politics (the metamorphosing face of Russia, immigration and the pursuit of money in America) into a fairytale of love and marriage.

Goldele, buoyantly played by Rachel Policar, loves Misha, the son of the family she has grown up with. Misha is handsome and honorable. They claim their loves goes back to childhood but we can also see why she loves him: Cameron Johnson's Misha is reminiscent of a young Leonardo DiCaprio with his movie star good looks and understated seriousness. Goldele's Uncle Benjamin (played by Bob Ader), however, wants her to move to America and marry his American-born son Jerome. Expertly played by Glenn Seven Allen, Jerome is the opposite of Misha: he is square-jawed and jaunty and speaks of baseball and jazz. Jerome is not interested in Goldele anyway: after a few weeks in the Russian village, he's fallen in love with Khanele played by the wonderful Jillian Gottlieb, who is physically and vocally light as a feather.

The story has many elements of a Shakespearean comedy: a young girl grows up without her mother, but when her father dies and leaves her a fortune, she wants to find her mother. Goldele's urge to find her mother is so strong that she declares to Misha and all the other suitors in the village that she will marry anyone who can can find her mother.

In Act II, everyone comes to America including Goldele's surrogate mother, father, Khanale, and Pinchas, the village matchmaker. Bruce Rebold, wonderfully comic as Pinchas, brings out the  central role of the matchmaker's role in Jewish culture (think Fiddler on the Roof and the song "Matchmaker, Matchmaker"). Pinchas hasn't lost any time once he gets to America and offers suitors to the maids who work for Goldele's uncle. They all seem promising enough, but then we learn they have a fault or two. One is rich but blind. Another is kind but missing a leg. And one is tall and handsome but works two jobs: as a window washer and as a waiter at Yonah Schimmel's, the famous knish place still standing on Houston Street.

Although Goldele doesn't need a matchmaker, she may need a shrink. Why does she offer her hand to any suitor who can find her mother when Misha is clearly the best candidate? The others: a deaf shoemaker, a roly-poly cantor, and a tailor, are bumbling and seemingly inept. They are definitely no match for the handsome and worldly Misha. But the primal draw to find her mother is understandable. Perhaps knowing our parents completes us.

Everyone quickly adapts to the rich life in America and play tennis, drink cocktails at tea time and buy new clothing. They continue to speak Yiddish once in the new country, but Goldele's (surrogate) mother, Toybe (played by Lisa Fishman) likes to try out her English. When she shows her husband, Pinchas, a new dress, she asks: “How do you like she?” His response: “You look like a delicious beef roast,” is all the funnier because it hits home the personal or familiar struggle with English as a foreign language. Then he asks: "Why are we speaking English?"

The Golden Bride touches upon some of the basic struggles that immigrants have and the question of why people leave their homeland. The reality of history looms behind the family. In 1923, when the play was written, the changing political climate after the Russian Revolution of 1917, as well as World War I (which ended in 1919), would result in poverty, famine and persecution for many. The family is aware that America is a hopeful place even to them who are lucky enough to enter into a life of wealth and ease.

Beautifully rendered sets by John Dinning are highlighted in the final act when the family gathers for a masquerade party. Finishing in true Shakespearean form, a masked stranger appears who brings news to Goldele about Misha and about her mother. But who is this man? And why does he know so much? Although we know, it’s impossible not to feel like cheering when the truth is revealed to Goldele as well.

The cast is superb and their infinite vocal talent is allowed to shine under the aegis of conductor and musical director Zalmen Mlotek with choreography and musical staging by Merete Muenter. The full-bodied singing and dancing accompanied by a live orchestra in The Golden Bride is an especially rare treat in Off-Broadway theater today.

The Golden Bride runs until Jan. 3 in the Edmond J. Safra Hall at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (36 Battery Place between 1st Place and Little West St.) in Manhattan. Check the Museum of Jewish Heritage for the full performance schedule. For tickets, call OvationTix at 866-811-4111 or visit the website.

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Finding True Joy

Sex, drugs, alcohol and money does not bring contentment to New York City lawyers, but it is still entertaining to watch the lawyers search for inner peace. Ethan McSweeny directs an accomplished ensemble in Thomas Bradshaw’s Fulfillment. Set in present-day Manhattan, the play covers ridiculous housing challenges and various pathways to self-satisfaction that resonate with New Yorkers.

The play's protagonist is a 40-year-old black lawyer named Michael (Gbenga Akinnagbe), who has worked 80 hours a week for the past nine years at a law firm with the same title of senior associate. Although Michael's colleague Steven started at the law firm the same time as Michael, Steven has been promoted to partner and makes $800,000 a year. Michael’s white, office hookup-turned girlfriend Sarah (Susannah Flood) claims that Michael has not been promoted to partner because of racism. She says, “Just think about it. No women partners, no black partners. I’m telling you this because we’re two of the only people from under-represented groups working here. We need to stick together.”

Whenever Michael’s white boss Mark (Peter McCabe) has a new, black client, Mark “trot[s] [Michael] out like a show horse!” Mark claims that Michael has not been made partner because Michael has a drinking problem.  Mark offers to have the firm pay for Michael to go to rehab, but Michael does not want to be away from work for that long. Michael also just bought a “shoebox in Soho” to live in for $1.5 million and had to borrow $80,000 from his mother’s retirement to help cover the down payment. Sarah says that Michael should instead “be living in a five million dollar apartment.”

This play’s message about happiness not being found in external things is communicated well. The value of this production is demonstrated in how this message is shown through the breakdown of Michael’s life. Audiences witness how Michael’s alcohol dependency feeds his insecurities and ultimately sabotages everything Michael has been trying to create for himself. New York City theatergoers will also easily relate with the intolerable amount of noise from Michael’s upstairs neighbor Ted (Jeff Biehl). The situation only escalates when Michael complains to the president of his condo association Bob (Denny Dillon).

As a grown man, Michael appears naive and boyish and easily manipulated by others. His own identity and sense of self-worth are questionable. Akinnagbe conveys Michael’s innocence eloquently and this allows for audiences to eventually develop compassion for Michael’s struggle. It also softens the cold, robotic, conniving exterior behavior of the other characters. Audiences begin to understand the roots of Michael’s alcoholism when Sarah says, “It’s only natural that you have no idea how to deal with people. You stopped maturing emotionally the second you started to drink [alcohol].” Michael started drinking when he was 16 years old.

As the characters seek fulfillment in their own lives, theatergoers may start to wonder if this production achieves what it set out to accomplish. Even with stellar performances like McCabe perfectly nailing his portrayal of Michael’s boss, the production seems like it is still in its adolescent stages. The material is fresh, quick and current but feels underdeveloped. The scenes tend to be short and end too prematurely for audience members to get the full emotional impact. The creative transitions between the scenes are flawless due to the lighting by Brian Sidney Bembridge and sound by Mikhail Fiksel and Miles Polaski. However, the multiple transitions become disruptive and lose their originality after a while. At times, the production relies on engaging audiences by using intense sexual scenes with masturbation, S&M and full-frontal nudity. Sex choreographer Yehuda Duenyas creates very realistic sexual scenes and it is like sitting on the set of a pornographic film.

Fulfillment does capture modern life in New York City and creates a greater conversation around what motivates and drives people. At the same time, Bradshaw could have focused more on universal, redeeming qualities.  This would add depth to the production’s message and allow for audiences to empathize with the characters’ vulnerabilities. McSweeny could also achieve this through directing the actors to have more emotional range in their performances.

The overall aim of this production falls short, and the production’s message has so much potential to mature and could even be further developed. Despite these weaknesses, the cast is superb and well worth seeing in this production. The Flea Theater has produced award-winning Off-Off-Broadway productions and is known for showcasing current and original material. For those seeking a captivating glimpse into the life of an alcoholic lawyer in New York City who has not come to terms with his alcoholism, then see Fulfillment.

Thomas Bradshaw's Fulfillment runs until Oct. 19 at The Flea Theater (41 White St. between Church St. and Broadway) in Manhattan. Evening performances are Wednesday–Monday at 7 p.m. and matinee performances are Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $35, $55, $75 and $105 and can be purchased by calling 212-352-3101 or visiting www.theflea.org.

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