By Myra Chanin
One of the best things about New York is that you can intend to perform a mitzvah, a commanded-by-God virtuous deed, by stumbling into a ratty 40-seat you-should-excuse-the-expression theater for the next to last showing of a three-day run of a play with a slightly nutty title, Crazy Meshuge Hurricane Earthquake, and leave an hour and 10 minutes later stunned by a performance which would have knocked your socks off if you were wearing any. Although the New Yiddish Rep usually performs works in Yiddish, Crazy Meshuge Hurricane Earthquake is performed in English and was written by Amy Coleman, the co-founder of the group.
Crazy Meshuge Hurricane Earthquake is not just the title but a description of the hero, Yossi, a paranoid-schizophrenic-bi-polar Hassidic young man, who was molested and sodomized by members of the Orthodox community during his teens. When he told his father what had occurred, not only did his father not protect Yossi, he cast him out. Because there were no endowments to be hustled for the care of psychotic children, Yossi’s father managed to have him evaluated as learning disabled, which supplied him with funds to pay for caretakers with little or no training or skills. All the father cared about was their being willing to stay with Yossi 24/7, feed him and most important keep him, the oldest of his 12 children, away from his family.
The five-character play portrayed by four actors tells the story of an unlikely connection that develops between a middle aged non-religious Jewish woman and a young Hasidic man struggling with schizophrenia. Lenora Klein (Amy Coleman) a recently retired music teacher is looking for meaning in her life when she answers an ad on Craigslist for a job as a live-in caretaker for Yossi Schwartz (Yoni Bronstein) a schizophrenic young man from a strictly Orthodox background. Primarily because of the family’s discomfort about the boy’s sexual molestation form seniors in the Orthodox community more than because of the stigma of mental illness, Yossi has been abandoned by his family and has been drifting in and out of hospitals and inadequate and untrained caregivers. When he meets Lenora, a curious relationship between two Jews of different sexes from different worlds takes place.
Yossi has an openness of character, an innocence and a surprising wit that make him easy for Leonora to care about. He is handsome, intuitive and funny; charming yet hopelessly psychotic. He is also scarred by having been abused by Orthodox men who knew they could get away with their crime because of the Hasidic community’s reluctance to involve police or to air these problems publicly. In addition, no one would believe the claims of an insane person, so Yossi has become a man without a voice to speak with about his pain.
Ultimately, Leonora discovers that in trying to heal Yossi, she has been actually trying to heal her relationship with her late father, who was also mentally ill, and in some way gain an understanding of her Jewish roots. She deserts Yossi and goes back to school. Three years later, she had a degree in social work. When Yossi, who has been hospitalized, contacts her and tells her he wants to stay with her, she tells him she’ll come to see him, but she never does.
Yoni Bronstein, a member of Actor’s Equity who just received his MFA in acting from Columbia University, gives an amazing performance. The theater is small, I was seated in the second row, and there was not a moment when I felt Yoni and Yossi were not one and the same. Watching the young actor perform was like seeing the debut of an actor with the passion, focus, talent and craft of a young Montgomery Clift. I’m looking forward to seeing all of his future performances.
Director Moshe Henderson from Seattle makes his NYC directing debut with this production. He did an excellent job of making an unusual situation come believably alive. Amy Coleman has written an interesting and moving first play and she was touching as Lenora Klein. Thomas Vorsteg, a newcomer, played Yossi’s initial caretaker as well as his very indifferent father, and presented each character with different voices and body movements.
The Playroom Theater 151 W. 46th St. (8th Floor) www.newyiddishrep.org