Sunday, March 01, 2009

Cleveland Heights

JCC’s ‘CLEVELAND HEIGHTS’ off the mark!

At intermission, and following the opening night performance of the Jewish Community Center’s ‘CLEVELAND HEIGHTS,’ the major topic of conversation was the lack of “Yiddisha” [Jewish] Cleveland in the shallow and obvious script. Except for half-a-dozen references, which had almost nothing to do with the plot, the play could have been set in Pittsburg, Indianapolis or any other city that has a couple of Jewish families and has gone through economic changes.

In a brave move to insure that the Cleveland Jewish story be told and archived, JCC commissioned playwright and actor Keith Reddin to write the script. Supposedly, Reddin did a year of research before writing play. In spite of his moderate success as a playwright, Reddin, who is a Chicago fixture, doesn’t appear to be the person to have undertaken the job.

The script didn’t highlight the transition of the Jewish population and their institutions from inner city to the eastern suburbs, and the problems and joys this caused. It didn’t highlight the terminology that went with these moves and conflicts, phrases like “Heights Mockies” and “Kinsman Cowboys.” Yes, there were a few reference to The Temple and Rabbi Silver and Camp Wise, but they were throw-ins, not integral to the plot. The story included many deaths, with that of the father being integral to the story. What’s a Cleveland Jew’s death without referencing the ceremony at Berkowitz’s? Where was the shiva food from Sherwins, Ungers and Corky and Lenny’s, depending on the era? The transition of Jewish students from Glenville to Shaker Heights and Cleveland Heights High Schools was part of the era that Reddin chose to write about, but there was none of this in his script. No, these names shouldn’t have been just dropped in, but in developing the story, twists and turns that centered on those places and events should have been a paramount plot guideline. (Think Les Roberts’ writing about Slovenians and their role in the Cleveland landscape.)

The play takes place in a Cleveland Heights home. The 1940s was when much of the Jewish population shifted from East 105th, and from Kinsman, to the heights areas. Why couldn’t the author have the family moving into their new home and discussing where they came from and why they moved? Why during the discussion of failing businesses in the 1970s didn’t he give references the demise of the Cleveland clothing manufacturing by referencing be the likes of Richman Brothers and Kaufman Kock (Joseph & Feiss). As is, the real” tam” [taste] of what made Jewish life in this unique city was missing.

Reddin uses trite stock characters to develop the obvious plot. The hard working Jewish business man who puts business ahead of family, the understanding wife, the sibling rivalry which caused the two brothers to go through less-than desired lives, intermarriage in which the non-Jewish wife becomes the “good” Jew, the nebbish family friend, the “ferbissinah’ [embittered] aunt, the rebellious daughter. Oy, couldn’t he have invented some new personas for these characters? Couldn’t he have created some tensions and unusual twists into the story line?

Director Brian Zoldessy, in spite of being saddled with this weak and unfulfilling script, managed to wring a few laughs and mild pathos thanks to some excellent acting. Charles Kartali, as the wanna be lawyer-son, Maryann Elder, double cast as the “shiksa” [non-Jewish] wife and the embittered aunt, Elizabeth Townsend as the rebel marijuana smoking daughter, Scott Miller s the put-upon brother, and Sharmon Sollitto as the hand-wringing mother were very good. The acting highlight was Zoldessy, himself. No one does hand-wringing hyper hysterical nerds like Zoldessy.

Ben Needham’s massive set made the cast appear to be guppies swimming in a large aquarium. It’s not his fault. The Cuyahoga Community College’s massive stage just doesn’t lend itself to intimate plays. Maybe the little theatre would have been a better place to stage the play.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: JCC did not get its money’s worth from their investment in commissioning Keith Reddin, an outsider with little intimate history of the Cleveland Jewish community, to write the definitive story about Jewish Cleveland. What they got was a trite, non-memorable script that probably, and wisely, will never see the light of day again. Too bad, yes, too bad, for the idea for such a story was right, especially in light of this probably being the last season for theatre at the J.