Archive for March, 2022

Review – The Marriage of Alice B Toklas by Gertrude Stein – Jermyn Street Theatre

March 24, 2022

Two women sit next to each other on a stage filled with white furniture and white frames. “I am Getrude Stein, playing Alice B Toklas,” says one to the audience. “I am Alice B Toklas, playing Getrude Stein, unless I am playing Getrude Stein playing Alice B Toklas,” says the other, to the audience. And on this wordplay goes back and forth until your brain is fighting to make the words make sense … only it does, and it makes a poem, and it brings to life a little world, of two women who long ago loved each other in a little apartment in Paris, and had friends who loved them, and rich lives, full of art and wordplay and fun.

The Marriage of Alice B Toklas by Gertrude Stein has a structure of poetry and playfulness that make it feel like it could have been a play written by Stein (Natasha Byrne). There are two other actors, primarily playing Ernest Hemingway (who is berated by Stein for not letting himself show the “sensitive boy inside, far more interesting”) and Pablo Picasso (who gives detailed information about keeping your mistresses away from your wife). This scene-chewing duo (Mark Huckett and Kelly Burke, respectively) provide foils for Stein and Toklas’ generally kind (but at times very sharp) wit. They play a bouquet of roles – as wives, mistresses, other writers, and even Alfred North Whitehead, the mathematician Toklas (Alyssa Simon) uses to wind Hemingway up as “the third true genius I have ever known” (pricking his ego over and over again)., and keep the energy high, while Toklas and Stein provide the absolute calm at the center of this whirlwind of art, philosophy, and philandering.

While I can’t vouch for the veracity of the depictions of any of these characters or life in the Stein-Toklas household, I loved seeing these 20th century legends being silly and human on stage. Did they love themselves a little too much? It seems quite likely. Did Toklas and Stein hold their friends warmly in their hearts, despite seeing their imperfections? I’m sure it was so. And along with providing some historical framing for the story of Alice and Getrude’s life, the “other artists” provide much context for women’s lives in Paris. And, yes, more jokes. One of my favorites is when Picasso is trying to get Stein to praise his poetry … “But why did you say nothing about it?” “Well, you know how Jean Cocteau’s drawings were not merely bad, but repugnant?” “Well, yes.” “Sometimes when you’re a genius you have to learn your limitations.” (*This is my best memory of the conversation – I was too busy laughing to write it down verbatim.)

I realize this play might not be for everyone – a simple tale of domestic bliss between two women would be enough to chase off some, the intellectual folderol might disincline others – but I found it the absolute incarnation of why I come to Jermyn Street over and over again – to see an intimate play, done simply, which lets my intellect take flight and also manages to move me. It deserves a sold out run. I was glad to be there at the beginning.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday March 22, 2022. It continues through April 16th. Running time about 90 minutes.)

Jewish Hollywood – Aria Entertainment at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

March 19, 2022

In times like these – and it seems like it’s getting more like “times like these” by the day – an evening of great music and escapist entertainment seems like just the thing. What did I know about the impact of Jews on Hollywood, or the presence of Jewish culture in American movies? Honestly, nothing, but I was looking forward to learning. I had high hopes for my return to Upstairs at the Gatehouse and I was not disappointed.

The show is done as a bit of a history lesson, with songs generously leavened in (not always in historical order) and lots of breaks for showbiz fun. It is a four hander, two women and two men (one pair twenties-ish – Mackenzie Mellen and Jack Reitman – and the other in the prime of middle age – Sue Kelvin and Howard Samuels), with a generously sized band that included a person who played flute (I think!), clarinet, and possibly saxophone. The reeds gave a more klezmer-y sound to the ensemble than the usual house band – and were perfect for the show.

We started with the birth of Hollywood – well, the birth of cinema in America, really! Jewish immigrants, very recently arrived escaping European pogroms and with names frequently sanitized by Ellis Island authorities, started in the business right away, even before there were movies (kinetoscopes, mutoscopes, etc, in penny arcades) in New York, which ws the original home of America’s film industry. It was a good business to get into if you were a nobody from nowhere as the mass entertainment industry was considered low class and thus had a lower barrier to entry.

Despite working quickly up to the point of owning many of the Hollywood studios (where the industry settled due to the ease of filming under sunnier skies), the studio owners didn’t pursue Jewish themes, although there was a notable exception for The Jazz Singer, the breakthrough talkie about a young man struggling between his father’s dream for him to take up his position as the cantor for their synagogue and his wish for a Broadway career that raked in the dough. This was (shock!) the last Jewish themed Hollywood movie for decades …. until Exodus became a best seller (then a blockbuster movie, with Paul Newman as the star) … paving the way for people to be themselves, to be Jewish, and to be stars.

Photo credit: Louis Burgess

There’s a lot more story to be told, but let’s skip that and get to the fun! In addition to comical retellings of the two pivotal movies above (no blackface, thank God), the show features just buckets of great tunes, and has a cast that knows how to belt them. Kelvin was great at recreating that great star Sophie Tucker (“My Yiddische Momme”) as well as the very modern Midler, while Samuels was perfect at clowning as well as delivering tunes. The cast threw themselves into “Tradition” (<I>Fiddler on the Roof</I>) just as much as “God Bless America” (although I questioned Irving Berlin being called a jingoist – he was a patriot, which is different) and the very troubling “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” and “Springtime for Hitler.” It covered a very wide range of American history but with such great songs to illustrate the stories, it, unsurprisingly, never got dull!

For me, though, the highlight of the evening was a brief turn given by Mackenzie Mellen performing “Don’t Rain on my Parade” – it was so heartfelt and vibrant it seemed for a moment the windows might just burst off the building to let her song radiate through the entire neighborhood – wow! Her bio was the shortest in the program but I feel that with her star power she’ll be crossing my path many times again.

(Jewish Hollywood continues at Upstairs at the Gatehouse until April 17th, 2022. This review is for a show that took place on March 17th.)