by Myra Chanin
Founded in 2005, New World Theater Project is a non-profit company committed to celebrating the legacy of early 20th Century Yiddish Culture by translating plays with artistic merit into English and performing them for diverse contemporary artists and audiences—in the presumption that the plays that have, of course, stood the test of time. New World Theater Project is the inverse of the New Jewish Rep which recently performed Yiddish translations of both Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (with English titles) to astonishing critical and audience acclaim from both Jews and non-Jews.
I’ve seen and enjoyed several of New World Theater’s previous productions, but I found their current translation and performance of David Pinski’s Professor Brenner neither interesting, enjoyable, nor appealing.The three theatergoers who accompanied me and I all felt the professor’s story had failed the test of time. The set and the lighting were prosaic. The direction by Paul Tacacs was tedious and sent David Greenspan as Professor Brenner down a path that made me unable to connect with him emotionally. Had we seen even one of his paintings it might have made Miss Harris’s loving this total Mama’s boy somewhat more understandable.
I grew up in a culturally Jewish – but not religious – household. I hook onto anything with the slightest Jewish connection, but to me Professor Brenner had no tahm. Tahm is one of those difficult to translate Yiddish words that means flavor, spice, zing, zest, pizzazz (or some combination of them) and which connects one’s memories and feelings with the past. Professor Brenner was originally produced in 1911 but this production moved the time frame into the 1950s-60s judging by the costumes. It might have had more emotional appeal as a 1911 period piece.
Pinski supposedly broke with Jewish theatrical tradition by making his hero an older renowned artist who falls in love with a beautiful young woman and vice versa. Miss Emma Harris (a radiant Robyn Kerr) is forty years his junior and he wonders ad nauseum whether she loves him as a person or is attracted by his fame. She answers, equally ad nauseum, that it’s his artistic skill that attracts her. So what else is new? That young women are attracted to rich, famous or powerful older men—at least for the nonce—is an old story. Breaking with tradition would have had this beautiful maiden finding to a 61-year-old homeless Hassid sexually irresistible.
Mrs. Brenner, the professor’s mother (played perfectly by Randy Danson), knows better and tells Sonny the truth, not just once or twice, but over and over and over. Does he listen? No! He marries Miss Harris and before the wedding party is over he’s considering suicide. This production was a redundant mishmash and the color-blind casting didn’t help. I got a jolt every time the Professor’s student, Finkel, played with 80 times more sex appeal than the Professor by African-American actor Alvin Keith, ambled across the stage and told the Professor to do “what his heart tells him.” I was waiting for Miss Harris to do what my heart would have told me and elope with the handsome Finkel.
Professor Brenner. Through November 22, produced by New Worlds Theatre Project and playing at HERE (145 Sixth Avenue at Dominick, one block south of Spring). www.newworldsproject.org