by Samuel L. Leiter
If you grew up during the mid-twentieth century you didn’t have to be a classical music fan (or even Jewish) to recognize, and probably recite, the names of the four internationally renowned, Jewish violin maestros who dominated the concert world of the time: the American born Yehudi Menuhin (real name Mnuchin, like our current Secretary of the Treasury), and the Eastern European-born Mischa Ellman, Isaac Stern, and, of course, the artist who gives his name to British playwright James Inverne’s A Walk with Mr. Heifetz, efficiently directed by Andrew Leynse for Primary Stages at the Cherry Lane Theatre.
Jascha Heifetz, a child prodigy, born in Lithuania in 1901, immigrated to America in 1916, and was a worldwide celebrity when he performed in Palestine in 1926. There he is said to have met and taken a post-concert walk with a local violinist, choir master, and composer, Yehuda Sharett, a passionate Zionist kibutznik of the same age. Yehuda’s much more famous brother, Moshe Sharett, in fact, was one of the three principal founders of Israel and its second prime minister.
Inverne, excited to learn of what he originally believed was a chat between Sharett and Menuhin, not Heifetz, quickly wrote a play about what they might have discussed. He eventually discovered his mistake and had to write a completely new play.
In A Walk with Mr. Heifetz, the first of the play’s two acts (running an hour and 40 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission) imagines the conversation between Sharett, dressed by costumer Jen Caprio in utilitarian, worker-like garb, and, Heifetz, dapper in bowtie and double-breasted suit. Their location is near a ruined, stone wall, designed by Wilson Chen and beautifully lit by John Froelich.
As the men converse, a pretty, female violinist (Mariella Haubs), conventionally invisible in a yellow dress, and sitting on the wall or moving delicately around them, occasionally underlines their words with musical passages.
Sharett (Israeli actor Yuval Boim, passionately convincing) is convivially enthusiastic about the chance to talk to the iconic genius but the polite, aloof, and patronizing Heifetz (Adam Green, who actually bears a resemblance to the young violinist), constantly looking at his watch, clearly wishes to be elsewhere.
Biographical background on each is sprinkled through an occasionally contentious but ultimately undramatic discussion focusing on the plight of the Jews, Yehuda’s Zionist aspirations, and, predominantly, the men’s musical concerns. Yehuda, aware of his own limitations, sometimes hums snatches of his eventually well-known song “Rachel” (V’ulay), which I suspect is more familiar in Israel than to audiences at the Cherry Lane.
What little drama is present is overshadowed by historical and aesthetic issues, including music’s purpose, as in whether it should serve the ego, as per Heifetz’s celebrity, or, in Yehuda’s case, nationalistic goals. Mildly interesting as this may be, when Act One ends, with Yehuda planning to take Jascha’s advice to study in Berlin, we feel little hanging in the balance to stimulate our coming back for Act Two.
Indeed, Act One could stand as a one-act play about the “walk with Mr. Heifetz,” because in Act Two, set in 1945, the eponymous violinist appears only briefly, as a memory figure. Instead of Jascha, Yehuda now shares the stage with his own brother, the important politician Moshe Sharett (Erik Lochtefeld, quite good despite an unexplained, polished British accent). Why, though, does Chen’s design make the upstage wall of Yehuda’s kibbutz home resemble a bombed-out ruin?
As they drink Yehuda’s bad coffee, the siblings, who’ve been separated for some years, seem at first a bit testy with one another. Yehuda, whose music is now well-known among the kibbutzim but who is seriously depressed by a recent family tragedy, hears from Moshe of the political difficulties he’s confronting with his colleagues, David Ben Gurion and Chaim Weizman. And, of course, in these days on the cusp of Israel’s creation, there are the arrogant British to deal with. Naturally, the fate of the Jews in WW II is also invoked.
Music—including what was created in the Theresienstadt camp—is now even more closely interwoven with politics, as when Moshe tinkles the ivories to introduce the new Zionist anthem, “Hatikvah” (“The Hope”); its theme will be integral to Moshe’s advice intended to inspire his moribund brother. Heifetz, for his part, is persona non grata to post-Holocaust Jews because he performed the Nazi-approved music of Richard Strauss. And again, the role of ego in expressing a message, artistic or political, is raised.
Plays can get away with talky, polemical considerations only when they’re embedded in strong dramatic circumstances, with interesting characters. Here, the characters are little more than mouthpieces for ideas; just because they’re embedded in the grand drama of Israel’s birth or are accompanied by optimistic visions of the future, artistic and political, doesn’t make them stageworthy.
A Walk with Mr. Heifetz
Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce St., NYC
Through March 4