David Pinski was one of the leading Yiddish American playwrights at the turn of the last century even having his masterpiece, The Treasure, performed on Broadway in English translation in 1920 by The Theater Guild. Among his other mainstream achievements was the 1939 film The Singing Blacksmith from his play Yankel the Blacksmith and the 1980 revival of his music and dance drama King David and His Wives at the 92nd Street Y.
Pinski’s play could best be described as Ibsen’s The Master Builder as rewritten by Strindberg for the Yiddish theater. Arthur Brenner, a famous 61-year-old bachelor painter and art professor who lives with his mother has fallen head over heels for his beautiful 20-year-old student Emma Harris, and is considering marrying her. Emma turns out to be completely infatuated with her famous artist, but this may be due to his work or fame. His blind mother, who is psychic, has guessed his secret and thinks this would be a terrible idea due to the difference in their ages. His attitude is that “If I can still fall in love, then I am not too old.” Although Emma’s parents are surprised by the engagement, they give their blessing. At a celebration for their nuptials, Arthur sees Emma surrounded by people her own age and begins to have second thoughts. Described as comic tragedy, this short play has an open ending which leaves the denouement up to the viewer.
Professor Brenner portrays a relationship considered taboo in 1911 – that of an older man and a much younger woman outside the convention of an arranged marriage, a situation that no longer exists. Unaccountably, director Paul Takacs has updated the play to the 1950’s and eliminated any suggestion that this is taking place in the Jewish community by using an interracial cast. This destroys the play’s original theme of a taboo relationship leaving only the difference in their ages, no longer considered a problem. The interracial casting takes the play out of the Jewish milieu for which it was written.
Stranger still, Takacs has directed the play in an expressionistic style with long pauses between the lines of dialogue. In case the audience does not recognize the style, the program depicts a painting by Edvard Munch or one of his followers on its cover. However, the dialogue is entirely realistic and for a 2015 audience rather clichéd, so that the expressionistic manner only gets in the way. The best way to make this work would be to use a quick, rapid delivery suggesting that the professor is rushing into something that he hasn’t thought out very well.
In the title role, David Greenspan, long associated with avant-garde theater, uses a very mannered, artificial style of acting which sets Professor Brenner apart from everyone else in this realistic milieu. As a result, his portrayal is extremely unconvincing. The production also double casts four of the characters. The problem with this is that when the actors playing Emma’s parents return as young people at the celebration, we recognize them and don’t realize that they are supposed to be other characters.
Only Randy Danson as Brenner’s blind mother has the right style and impresses by the fact that everything she says appears to have a hidden meaning. As the young lady in question, Makaela Shealy is callow where she should appear passionate. Alvin Keith as Brenner’s star pupil Finkel comes across as superficial in an underwritten role. As Emma’s parents, Robyn Kerr and Ryan Chittaphong play them as comic which doesn’t seem to come naturally out of the material.
Steven Kemp’s attractive setting with its huge abstract expressionist panels sets the play decisively in the 1950’s but does not help the story line. In keeping with the setting are Sarah Smith’s beautiful bouffant dresses. Dante Olivia Smith’s subtle lighting design complements the paintings on stage in each scene.
New Worlds Theatre Project is to be commended for attempting to bring back lost Yiddish classics from an earlier age in new translations. Perecman’s new version of Professor Brenner is clear and spare but devoid of any Yiddish or Jewish flavor as one would have expected in a 1911 play. Unfortunately, updating to a later era may not be the most convincing way to revive these plays for a contemporary audience.
Professor Brenner (through November 22, 2015)
New Worlds Theatre Project
HERE, 145 Sixth Avenue at Dominick Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.here.org
Running time: 75 minutes without an intermission