The shadows of their immigrant fathers fall long and dark across a whole generation of Jewish writers. Herb Gardner's "Conversations With My Father," a warm, well-acted production of which opened Sunday night at Studio Theatre, is the latest in a line of dramas that depict artistic sons wrestling with the ghosts of disapproving, sometimes brutal fathers.
Actually the play's narrator, Charlie Ross (Edward Gero), doesn't have a lot of conversations with his father, Eddie (Joseph Costa). Mostly he has to listen, while the old man pontificates or rants. The adult Charlie, closing his deceased dad's bar-restaurant, recalls scenes from his childhood and adolescence. As they unfold before him he watches from a diner booth, unnoticed by the figures his memory has called up, a ghost himself haunting his past. Dad is a complicated man. The survivor of a Russian pogrom, he has embraced America to the point of changing the family name from Goldberg to Ross. "You, sir, have come to the melting pot and melted," chides one of his boarders, the aging actor Zaretsky. But Eddie has his reasons. As he explains to his son, being a Jew means "basically they want to kill you. ... This is true thirty- to thirty-five hundred years now and unlikely to change soon."
The line gets a laugh. Essentially, that's the difficulty with the play. Eddie's terrible destructive bitterness, the antisemitic violence in New York during World War II, the hideous details of the pogrom: Gardner includes these grim elements, but he is thwarted from exploring them by an almost reflexive desire to please. The play is clever, pleasant to sit through and often very funny; in the end it's a nice little domestic comedy about the scars of antisemitism. There's a difference between turning pain into humor -- a specialty of the Jewish artist in America -- and burying it beneath laughs.
Charlie's memories cover the period from 1936 to 1965. The memory sequence from 1936, when he is an infant, is mostly a long, entertaining victim's-revenge fantasy, in which tough Eddie routs a gangster trying to extort protection from him. This is unconvincing but fun to sit through, partly because of the performances of Paul Morella and Tom Quinn as a pair of hoods. Morella's hood is Italian and talks in dialect. The Irish characters drink and gamble and talk in dialect. The Jewish characters, except for Eddie and his sons, talk in dialect. Gardner doesn't have the most complex view of ethnic diversity.
But his jokes are good jokes, and he has charm to burn. Some of the best minutes in the play are when nothing is happening, a character is just riffing along entertaining us, as in Charlie's little lessons to the audience on the nature of Yiddish, or Mr. Zaretsky's description of his one-man show, which includes a 12-minute version of "The Dybbuk." Occasionally, particularly in the second act, Gardner goes on too long, and the play, which comes in at nearly three hours, starts to drag.
Still, John Going's sprightly, alert direction carries the production over the play's troublesome spots with hardly a bounce. And he's gotten first-rate work from his cast. The actors playing Charlie and his brother Joey as kids -- Daniel Eichner and Michael Mundra -- are a delight. Irv Ziff has found and filled out the role of a lifetime in the lovable old ham Zaretsky. In smaller roles, M. Lynda Robinson, Rosemary Regan, Lawrence Redmond and Tom Kearney are very fine.
Gero is a sensitive, intelligent Charlie, although it's disappointing to see such a powerful and imaginative actor playing a role beneath his gifts. Charlie is a shlub -- almost anyone could do him decently. In this play, I'd rather have seen Gero as the troubled, dark-souled father.
But then I would have had to do without Joseph Costa's fierce turn in the role. Costa's Eddie is a bantam -- small, tough, unpredictable, mean. He doesn't overwhelm his family (or the audience) by force so much as he conquers by bitter infiltration. He doesn't blow up his sons and his wife; he poisons them with his rancid cloud of disappointment, paranoia and frustrated rage.
James Kronzer has done another of his beautiful sets. Even his details are perfect -- the deliberately bad painting above the bar looks like a poor effort to copy Thomas Eakins. Daniel MacLean Wagner's lighting is fluid and subtle, shifting us through time without drawing attention to itself.
Like "Death of a Salesman" or "The Price," both of which it's descended from, "Conversations With My Father" is basically a drama about trying to understand Dad, to forgive him and so escape him. Gardner may soften some of his story's harsher elements, but at least he doesn't give in to the temptation of a happy, sappy ending. Charlie doesn't forgive his father. At the end he sits at the bar, afraid of turning into the old man, and haunted, presumably forever, by his ghost.
Conversations With My Father, by Herb Gardner. Directed by John Going. Costumes, Mary Ann Powell; sound, Gil Thompson. With Daniel Schachner and Jason Novak. At the Studio Theatre through Feb. 5.
CAPTION: Eddie (Joseph Costa) teaches his son Joey (Daniel Eichner) a harsh lesson in "Conversations With My Father."
CAPTION: Joseph Costa is the angry yet entertaining Eddie in Studio Theatre's production of "Conversations With My Father."