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Theatre in Review: Doctors Jane and Alexander/Brecht: Call and Respond

Top: Alyssa Simon, Max Wolkowitz. Photo: Arthur Cornelius. Bottom: Susan Lynskey, Michael Aguirre. Photo: Hunter Canning.

Two new productions grapple with the past in very different ways. There are few pieces more personal than Doctors Jane and Alexander, staged at HERE, in which the author and director, Edward Einhorn, probes his complicated family heritage. His grandfather, Alexander Weiner, is a major figure in scientific history, having discovered the Rh factor in blood; in the annoying way of many polymaths, he was also known as "the detective of the future" for his work as head of the department of serology for the chief medical examiner of the City of New York, and he was also a composer of some accomplishment. Alexander casts a long shadow over the play, as he did over several generations of his family. As played by Len Rella, he is a large presence; whether taking to the keyboard or discussing one of his theories, he offers living testimony to the notion that genius tends to fill a room.

Few of us know what it is like to be the child of someone so celebrated, but, as Einhorn's script makes clear, Alexander was a less-than-satisfactory father. "He was a kind of cold man," says Jane, his daughter (and Einhorn's mother). "He was a nice man, but that was his personality." These less-than-adoring words are spoken in 2005; Jane, who is only sixty-eight, has had a stroke and struggles to speak clearly. Sometimes she is mentally acute and other times she seems to wander. She is also afflicted by agitated movements that come and go without warning. Given this sad turn of events, Einhorn's desire to document his mother's life takes on a new urgency.

Working largely with found texts -- including science tomes, diaries, interviews, and even comic books -- the playwright teases out the details of a family given to extremes of achievement and unhappiness. Alexander emerges as a brilliant mind, given to overreaching. The Rh discovery saved countless lives, but he spent an enormous amount of time on a largely fruitless effort to rework the nomenclature around it, an internecine battle illustrated by a satirical song from the period, written by the anonymous I. M. Jaundiced. Clearly, Alexander, for all his gifts, was more than a little maddening.

Nevertheless, here Alexander takes a back seat to his daughter and grandson. As we learn, Jane had a career as a psychologist, having written her PhD thesis on the social forces that make children cheat. And, at various times, she was a violinist, poet, and painter. Still, she was haunted by a lifelong sense of futility; she also suffered from an unspecified mental illness that required electroshock therapy. (This last point is not satisfactorily elucidated, apart from a reference to "the vampire thing," an apparent delusion about which we learn nothing.) Now invalided far too young, she answers her son's questions in curt, telegraphic answers -- whether because of illness, unhappiness, or simple exhaustion is hard to say.

At times, Doctors Jane and Alexander comes across a pileup of interesting data points in search of dramatic expression, but the mother-son scenes are written with real tenderness and regret; Jane's terse answers are suffused with a Pinterian melancholy. Confined to a wheelchair, speaking in a faint singsong, Alyssa Simon makes her a piercingly poignant figure, especially when looking back at a life of missed opportunities. There's a wicked sense of fun lurking behind her frail, disappointed fa├žade, however. Asked about the low moan that sometimes emanates from her, she says, grinning surreptitiously, "That's how I talk now. A Southern accent." And when, reverting to her younger self, she stands up to speak about her research, we see exactly how much life has been stolen from her.

Max Wolkowitz's Edward -- amusingly costumed by Ramona Ponce to look just like his real-life counterpart -- has a sunny, eager-beaver quality as he pursues his dramatic quarry; his open, tolerant smile is on full display as he deals with the brother who wants to be interviewed but manages to horn in on the action anyway, or the cousin who, kindly but firmly, urges him not to discuss Jane's mental illness in too much detail. His investigation of the past reveals him to be his mother's son, prone to anxiety attacks and a fear of squandered talent; his long career in the theatre has taken him far and wide, among other things leading to a friendship with Vaclav Havel -- but, feeling left out in a family of medical and legal professionals, he wonders to Jane that maybe his choices have led him astray.

If this sounds like navel-gazing, it isn't: Einhorn asks very real, painful questions, offering himself as Exhibit A, and his honesty is bracing. There are some nice things in Doctors Jane and Alexander -- a piece that may still be in search of its ideal form -- but none of them come close to the sight of mother and son -- wounded, self-doubting, and bruised by life -- tentatively clinging to each other as time runs out. I'm betting that it will linger in your mind long after the show is over.

Brecht: Call and Respond, at Paradise Factory, is founded on a nifty idea: The evening commences with a one-act by Bertolt Brecht; the two short plays that follow are the responses to it by contemporary playwrights. The opener, The Jewish Wife, written in 1938, is a brief, devastating piece in which the title character, married to an Aryan doctor, decides it is time to flee her bourgeois German existence before the Nazis catch up with her. Watching Judith quietly go about her business -- packing, making phone calls, finalizing arrangements -- we realize that she is not, as she insists, going to Amsterdam only for a few weeks. The reasons for her flight are many: She is certain that she has become a drag on her husband's career, for example, and she sees the slow erosion of the social space she occupies, bringing her ever closer to peril. Pretending to speak to her spouse, she says, "Don't say you're not changed. You are! Last week you found -- 'quite objectively' -- that the percentage of Jewish scientists is after all not so great. It always begins with objectivity. And why are you always telling me I was 'never such a nationalist as today.' Naturally! It's so catching!"

And when Fritz, her husband, shows up, he puts up the weakest of fights, clinging to polite lies about their eventual reunion; it's a heartbreaking end to a once-happy union. The Jewish Wife is a masterpiece in miniature, a study in quiet, everyday capitulation that couldn't be more relevant than it is right now. Jerry Heymann's perfectly controlled direction is matched by Susan Lynskey's almost preternatural poise as Judith efficiently arranges the details of her marriage's demise. Michael Aguirre is a study in capitulation as Fritz.

Arlene Hutton's Sunset Point offers a modern reinterpretation of The Jewish Wife's situation. Henson, a best-selling novelist of a certain age, is engaged to marry Rachel, a rather younger poet. They appear to be ideally suited, even if it means her being an efficient caretaker to a man too convinced of his eminence and unable to do a thing for himself. The opening dialogue, describing Henson's return from a literary conference, would have been more amusing if Gerry Bamman didn't whine so much; he appears to be the oldest baby you've ever seen, and, after five minutes, any rational woman would slap him upside the head. For example, he is wounded because Rachel, coming home on the same day from a visit with her ailing mother, doesn't sit at JFK for three hours, waiting for his plane to arrive, in order to guide him home. Does he need a wife or assisted living?

The play's action is sparked when the news drops that Henson has purchased the Catskills summer house that belonged to his family before their fortunes went south. Never mind that he didn't consult her; it is located in a gated community inhabited by old-guard WASPs, several of whom already take a dim view of the Jewish Rachel. The play's most amusing line is also its biggest giveaway: Henson insists he needs the house to complete the last big book he has in him. "I thought I was your new inspiration," she protests. "That was two years ago," he replies. "I got a short story in The New Yorker out of it." Sunset Point is meant to be a modern parable of bigotry, but its real takeaway is that Rachel needs to develop better taste in men. Lindsay Brill has a refreshingly natural presence, but Heymann's direction lets this one get away.

Probably even the most astute guidance couldn't do much for Self Help in the Anthropocene, in which Joy, a thuddingly misnamed housewife, slogs through a pile of old, useless possessions. She is, theoretically, getting the house ready for a party she and her wife are throwing, but it is never clear why this mountain of junk is cluttering up the floor. As her lengthy monologue unfolds -- this is one of those plays in which a character talks to the walls for no apparent reason -- it becomes apparent that we are in the dystopian near-future, in which foods are made in test tubes, it is often illegal to go outside, and refugees from the treacherous weather are shuffled off to "climate centers," where they come to sinister ends.

Like the playwright, Kristin Idaszak -- and any right-thinking person in 2020 -- I am convinced that we are sliding toward climate disaster, but Self Help in the Anthropocene isn't a play, it's a data dump, designed to harangue the audience, few of whom are likely to disagree with the points being made. It is dull, undramatic, and, sadly, an echo-chamber exercise. Lucy Lavely is a striking presence with an interestingly husky voice, but she can't bring any coherence to her ill-conceived character. This is a sincere work, but an unhelpful one. Brecht turned the most terrible events of his lifetime into gripping, urgent drama; Idaszak wants to do the same, but she is all thumbs. -- David Barbour

(3 February 2020)

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