One-Acts With Pedigrees:
Tue, 09/06/2011
Special To The Jewish Week
The cast of “Relatively Speaking.”
The cast of “Relatively Speaking.”

When “Death Defying Acts,” an evening of one-act comedies opened Off-Broadway at the Variety Arts Theatre in 1995, the critics fell over themselves to heap praise on the short plays, which were written by David Mamet, Elaine May and Woody Allen.

According to Vincent Canby of The New York Times, the evening was so “effervescent” that he asked, “Who needs Broadway when Off-Broadway can be as easy and mischievous fun as this?”

This fall brings a long-awaited similar evening of one-acts, this time by Allen, May, and Ethan Coen, and, this time, squarely on Broadway. Directed by John Turturro, “Relatively Speaking” mines madcap humor from relationships in — you guessed it — dysfunctional urban Jewish families. The show opens in October at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.

While the plots of the three plays are closely guarded secrets, the titles are not. Allen’s play is called “Honeymoon Hotel” (described by the playwright, in an interview with Patrick Healy of The Times, as a “broad comedy, for laughs, no redeeming social value”), while May’s is “George is Dead,” and Coen’s is “Talking Cure.”

Turturro, who has appeared in many films by Ethan and Joel Coen, will make his Broadway directing debut, overseeing a dream cast that features Steve Guttenberg, Marlo Thomas, Julie Kavner, Grant Shaud, Fred Melamed, Danny Hoch, Ari Graynor, Lisa Emery, Bill Army, and Caroline Aaron.

Julian Schlossberg, a Bronx-born radio and television host turned Hollywood and Broadway producer who founded Castle Hill Pictures (based on his last name, made up of the Yiddish words for “castle” and “mountain”) is the brains behind “Relatively Speaking.” He is co-producing with Letty Aronson, Allen’s sister, who has produced fourteen of his films, including the not-yet-released “The Bop Decameron.”

While all three playwrights are better known for their work in film, all have also enjoyed considerable success on the stage. May earned a Drama Desk Award for her first play, “Adaptation,” and went on to pen “Taller Than a Dwarf,” “After the Night and Music,” and “Adult Entertainment” (starring her daughter, Jeannie Berlin, along with Danny Aiello). Allen’s plays include “Play It Again, Sam,” “The Floating Light Bulb,” “Writer’s Block,” and “Second Hand Memory.” And Coen has scored hits with two evenings of one-act comedies at the Atlantic Theater Company, “Almost an Evening” and “Offices.”

“The risk with one-act plays is that people like one and not another,” Schlossberg told The Jewish Week. “But when you’re dealing with these kind of pedigrees, I can’t resist.” The plays, he said, “speak to the mess that we all have in our families.”

What makes these plays specifically Jewish? “We’re a very emotional, visceral people,” Schlossberg responded. “Our DNA has a lot of nervousness in it. Comedy is a great outlet for that.”

“Relatively Speaking” previews begin on Sept. 20 for an Oct. 20 opening at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, 256 W. 47th St. Performances are Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Wednesday and Saturday at 2 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. For tickets, $74.75-$129.75, call Ticketmaster at (877) 250-2929 or visit www.musicalstonight.org.

‘Milk And Honey,’ At 50

Before “Hello, Dolly!,” before “Mame,” before “La Cage Aux Folles,” — before, in other words, Jerry Herman became one of the most successful composers in the musical theater — he created a musical that, more than any of these others, was directly connected to his own Jewish identity.

Set in Israel, “Milk and Honey,” starring Yiddish theater luminary Molly Picon and Metropolitan Opera star Robert Weede, opened on Broadway in 1961, at a time when few Americans, Jewish or otherwise, had much insight into what life in Israel was really like. “Musicals Tonight,” a series dedicated to reviving forgotten musicals, celebrates the 50th anniversary of “Milk and Honey” this season, giving audiences a taste of Israel in the period before the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars changed the Jewish homeland forever.

“Milk and Honey,” with book by Don Appell, was Herman’s first Broadway musical. It revolves around a busload of American Jewish widows who are looking for husbands in the Jewish state.

When one of the widows, Ruth Stein, meets an American man named Phil Arkin who is visiting his married daughter in Jerusalem, the romantic sparks begin to fly. When the musical was revived in 1994 at the American Jewish Theatre, the usually acerbic John Simon of New York Magazine praised the “terrific” and “lushly tuneful score,” which includes such soaring numbers as “Shalom,” “Chin Up Ladies,” and “Hymn to Hymie.”

“Musicals Tonight,” which Ben Brantley of The Times has called an “admirable shoestring variation on the formula behind the beloved Encores series,” has revived more than 65 musicals since it began in 1997, under the direction of the indefatigable producer Mel Miller. Charging only $25 per ticket, the shows are performed as staged readings in an 88-seat theater in midtown. “Milk and Honey,” which will run for two weeks in October, has not yet been cast.

In an interview, Miller said that the show is set during “a very innocent time,” when the country was young, and when there was “something so romantic about people taking dust and making it bloom.” He noted that Americans in the post-Eisenhower era were themselves “very task-oriented,” as they moved to the suburbs and jumped headlong into the Space Race. By contrast, “the Israelis were seen as heroic, and they did it without a lot of hoopla. It was a whole society dedicated to boldness and sacrifice. How many of us did anything bold?”

Nowadays when, according to Miller, Israel’s image is the “lowest ever in public consciousness,” the musical may bring people to a new appreciation of what it took to create the modern Jewish state. “Part of it is propaganda, and part of it is very real,” Miller concluded. “It’s the stuff of legend.”

In an article in the current issue of TDR (The Drama Review), which is dedicated to an exploration of Jewish themes in the performing arts, historian Jessica Hillman-McCord discusses what she calls the “restorative nostalgia” engendered by bringing back the musical. The show may seem, to modern ears, “quaint, idealistic, and highly naive,” she concedes. But “through its innocence” it offers “a window into early attitudes toward Israel — how they came about and how they are maintained.”

“Milk and Honey” runs from Oct. 11-23 at The Lion Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and Wednesday, Friday and Sunday at 2 p.m. For tickets, $26.25 (including theater restoration charge) and information, call Telecharge at (212) 560-2186 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.