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Prague, 1912 (The Savoy Café Yiddish Theatre)

Jason Howard, Alex Wilborn, John Barilla and Jenne Vath in a scene from “Prague 1912 (The Savoy Café Yiddish Theatre)” (Photo credit: Jonathan Slaff)

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief

Prague, 1912 (The Savoy Café Yiddish Theater) desperately needs a rewrite, but alas, the author, Lu Hauser, died six years ago. Billed as a “backstage comedy,” it is not the least bit funny. It does not reveal anything about backstage life except that the actors appear to be starving. Nothing is learned about the Yiddish theater except that in 1912 they were still performing scenes from the classics, not contemporary works. And the play could be set in London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, Warsaw or Budapest for all the atmosphere it contains in reference to Prague. Director George Ferencz, best known for his stagings of early Sam Shepard, uses such a heavy hand with his trio of actors that had there been any humor in the play it would be unable to surface.

The play alternates between scenes of Jak Lowy, head of the Yiddish Theater troupe, and his star actress Madame Trassek at the Savoy Café where they are performing and solo scenes of Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman – a recent friend and their only patron, writing letters home to his father with whom he has a rocky relationship. Lowy and Trassek, lovers who are not married to each other, argue, rehearse and perform scenes from their repertoire, Queen Leah (adapted from King Lear) and the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. To raise money, they also sell hot sweet potatoes, but they do not appear to have any customers for their potatoes or their plays except Gregor. They await new scripts from Gregor who writes “The Hunger Artist” for them, and at the end when they have decided to leave Prague, he hands them his latest “The Metamorphosis.”

Jenne Vath and John Barilla in a scene from “Prague 1912 (The Savoy Café Yiddish Theatre)” (Photo credit: Jonathan Slaff)

The two performers are based on real people with the same last names. As is generally known, “The Hunger Artist,” “The Metamorphosis,” and “Letter to His Father” were written by Franz Kafka, a Prague resident. And the name “Gregor Samsa” is the hero of his now famous novella, “The Metamorphosis.” Then why call him by the wrong name in this play unless he is supposed to be incognito? However, that is another thing that is never addressed nor is the name change. What is less well known but thoroughly documented is that Kafka was a denizen of the Savoy Café and knew Lowy and the Yiddish Theatre for about six months. Critics believe that the dark humor in their plays dramatically influenced his own writing. However, as the play only has three characters (are we sitting in the theater as part of their audience?), there is no theater milieu for Gregor to hang out with.

Portraying stage stars of 100 years ago, John Barilla and Jenne Vath give the kind of emotive, exaggerated performances that Yiddish theater was reputedly known for in those days. As Gregor Samsa (aka Franz Kafka?), Jason Howard seems  traumatized which may or may not be true of the historical character on which he is based. As staged by Ferencz, the play has 12 set changes for the 13 scenes which not only make it seem longer than it is but is rather distracting. Designed by Mark Macante, only the inset of the stage of the Savoy Café and the dressing room hidden by a gauze curtain have any feeling of the time or the period. However, Sally Lesser’s costumes are pitch perfect both for the characters in their private lives as well as their theater performances. The most effective aspect of the play is the live music with cornetist Alex Wilborn for a series of Jewish folk songs as well as one song also performed on tape by the Uptown String Quartet, though none of it seems necessary for the story line.

John Barilla, Jason Howard, and Jenne Vath in a scene from “Prague 1912 (The Savoy Café Yiddish Theatre)” (Photo credit: Jonathan Slaff)

There is a fascinating story to be told in Franz Kafka’s involvement with the Yiddish theater in Prague during 1912 but Lu Hauser’s play isn’t it. Prague, 1912 (The Savoy Café Yiddish Theatre) is both episodic and repetitious without being clear as to the point that it is making. It  seems to be simply a collection of scenes on the same themes that endlessly repeats itself. As Paula Vogel’s Indecent has demonstrated, there is a current interest in the Yiddish theater but Prague, 1912 has not brought to life this world that is now gone with the wind.

Prague, 1912 (The Savoy Café Yiddish Theatre) (through November 26, 2017)

Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, at 19th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-254-1109 or visit http://www.theaterforthenewcity.net

Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission

Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief
About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (427 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for TheaterScene.net in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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