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Theatre in Review: A Walk with Mr. Heifetz (Primary Stages/Cherry Lane Theatre)

Mariella Haubs, Yuval Boim. Photo: James Leysne.

Although he gets title billing, the violinist Jascha Heifetz appears almost exclusively in the first act of James Inverne's rather chatty and sedate drama about art, history, and politics. In Act II, the great violinist has only the briefest of cameos. This is not surprising, as rather too much is left offstage in A Walk with Mr. Heifetz. Consisting of a pair of conversations -- featuring three historical figures -- separated by 19 years, it is informed by war, the Holocaust, and the ever-roiling politics of the Middle East, and yet its dramatic boiling point remains so high that it never escapes a certain quietude. This problem is not alleviated by the characters' tendency to lecture each other, and us.

The walk of the title takes place in Palestine one night in 1926. Heifetz has given a concert and is strolling outside an unnamed city with Yehuda Sharett, a young kibbutznik. Both men are in their mid-twenties: Heifetz is already world-famous and Yehuda, a choir director and composer, is modestly well-known in his community. Their talk touches on various matters, most of them intended to strike a contrast between the effusive Yehuda, whose life is fully grounded in the soil of his not-yet-born nation, and Heifetz, a buttoned-up, thoroughly cosmopolitan, time-is-money type, who clearly wonders what this young stranger wants of him and why he can't get to the point. More than once, he discreetly looks at his watch -- a gesture with which I was in complete sympathy.

Finally, Yehuda drops the pleasantries and bares the conflict that is eating at him: He wants to develop his talent for composition. As he earnestly puts it, "I yearn to find things in the language of music that we have not yet touched upon. To find one simple truth that I am the first to uncover, even a very little truth, this does not seem too much to ask." However, there's a catch: Palestine, existing as it does only by British mandate, offers the young man no opportunities for furthering his studies. For that, he needs to visit at least one of "the cities of the great composers." But, he wonders, "If I am not here, building our homeland to save our people, how am I not betraying them?" He adds, "I can't make music if I am not called to do so for my people. It cannot be about me." There's a genuine frisson when Heifetz, pushing for Berlin as "a place where they eat and drink and breathe music," also says, "And it's full of Jewish musicians. German Jews there are living a great new dream." But throughout this encounter, Heifetz has trouble grasping the problem and, frankly, so will many in the audience. Inverne does a reasonable job of drawing the differences between Yehuda, who, deeply influenced by his life on the kibbutz, views music as a form of communal expression, and Heifetz, whose total dedication to his art has brought him wealth, fame, and no small amount of self-absorption. But there's nothing really urgent about Yehuda's dilemma, which is framed, not entirely honestly, as a zero-sum conflict. Why couldn't he leave Palestine, complete his studies, and return in a few years? In doing so, would he really be betraying the Zionist dream?

In Act II, it is now 1946, only a couple of years out from the birth of Israel, and a middle-aged Yehuda is now a composer and musical director of note in Palestine; he is also a deeply depressed and a recluse. He is visited by his brother, Moshe, a prominent politician: "The newspaper calls you the third most important man in the country," Yehuda notes, not entirely admiringly. Moshe wryly replies that this is merely the press' way of pointing out that he isn't as famous as Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion. Once again, the conversation wanders, in part to fill us in about the changes wrought in the ensuing decades. Heifetz's name is evoked in passing, once again in the context of art versus politics. Yehuda notes, disapprovingly, that the violinist "dared to play the music of Richard Strauss, and one of us, one of our dear brethren, attacked him outside the King David Hotel with a stick. Now he comes no more." Moshe isn't willing to let the composer off the hook for being "one of the figureheads of Hitler's cultural apparatus," adding, "Some buried their heads in the sand. Others in a musical score." Yehuda replies, "This is a reason for a Jew to attack another Jew?"

Once again, this is all background material, a lengthy way of setting the stage for the real matter at hand: Yehuda took Heifetz's advice about Berlin, returning home without incident. (One has the feeling that most of Act I was much ado about nothing; in any case, we never hear about his time there, which would have coincided with the rise of the Nazis.) Five years earlier, however, he turned away from the world following the death of his family in a car accident. His personal pain, combined with his revulsion over world war and the horrors of the Holocaust, have shattered his faith in the power of music. The ever-pragmatic Moshe wants Yehuda back at work, creating compositions that will help to shape a Jewish national identity. In one of the play's baldest statements -- and that's saying something -- he tells his brother, "You awaken something in their hearts and you, maybe more than I, are part of our national character. Don't you see, my brother? You are my dream for our country. You are Israel, Yehuda." Pressing his point, he produces a recording by Viktor Ullmann, a German Jew who continued composing in Theresienstadt, the concentration camp that functioned as a Potemkin village artists' colony; as it happens, Ullmann's composition has a surprising link to Yehuda.

For all of its apparent emotional freight, the confrontation between the brothers is almost dismayingly polite. Yehuda's family tragedy involves characters we've never previously heard about, so it remains a largely abstract matter. (One of the victims was Yehuda and Moshe's mother, but Moshe seems to have gotten over it quite nicely.) Each man presents his arguments neatly, as if they had prepared position papers in advance, but their conflict feels oddly disconnected from the turbulent facts of their lives. A running gag about the poor quality of Yehuda's coffee, clearly meant to add a humanizing touch, quickly grows tiresome. Andrew Leynse's direction maintains a civil tone throughout, which may be a mistake: Yuval Boim's Yehuda and Erik Lochtefeld's Moshe are bloodless, even as they discuss mass murder and political upheaval. It's especially difficult to accept Yehuda as driven by creative demons or ravaged by grief. Rather better is Adam Green's Heifetz, whose intense arrogance adds a welcome note of steel. (Asked if he speaks Arabic, he replies, rather primly, "I only speak the nine languages.") The gifted violinist Mariella Haubs appears in the first act, backing up the dialogue with some lovely musical passages.

The production design assembles a relatively small number of details to create a sense of life in Palestine. Wilson Chin's spare set consists of little more than a wall reduced to rubble in Act I, and, with the addition of a few pieces of furniture, converts nicely to Yehuda's apartment in Act II. Chin's work is aided to no small degree by John Froelich's lighting, which, in Act I, is informed by fading afternoon sunlight and an enormous moon, and, in Act II, creates the sense of an interior lit by oil lamps. Jen Caprio's costumes include two meticulously tailored men's suits from different decades. M. L. Dogg's sound design includes an evocative wind effect in Act I and the sound of Ullmann's music in Act II.

A Walk with Mr. Heifetz has a lot on its mind, and most of it is intelligently expressed, but it rarely rises to the level of drama. It's hard to believe in the transformative power of art when the drama onstage is so earnest and so given to speechmaking. -- David Barbour

(21 February 2018)

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