Can an actor's performance be too good for a play? Apparently it can, if one performance so overwhelms the script that the depth and subtlety of the drama are eclipsed by the charisma of its star. Such seemed to be the case when I saw the touring production of Herb Gardner's autobiographical opus Conversations With My Father in Los Angeles. Originally produced at Seattle Rep, the play ran for 402 performances on Broadway, where Judd Hirsch's towering, Tony Award-winning performance in the title role was so mesmerizing it made the play seem aimless, whiny and self-serving. Frankly, I dreaded sitting through it ever again.
I am pleased to report that in Stage West at Herberger Theater Center, the best production of the season has rescued Gardner's play from its many flaws. Jim Pinkerton's incisive, detailed and eloquent staging illuminates Conversations with such blinding insight that it sings with conviction. Instead of an overpowering star turn, we are treated to that rarest of theatrical miracles, an ensemble of artists united in creating an imaginary world. The result is that Gardner's play seems filled with humor, pathos and wisdom for most of its three-hour trek. To be sure, the play is still too long. The last three scenes still seem superfluous, and the paper-thin plot meanders when it should be marching. But the director and his cast have mined the circumstances so well that the flaws of the play turn into golden moments to be prized.
The play begins with Charlie revisiting the site of his childhood: a huge, empty emporium once known as the "Homeland Tavern." Accompanied by his son Josh, Charlie has come to remove a few personal items before this mausoleum of memories is sold. The very air seems to reek of memories--mostly of Charlie's father, Eddie, who once ruled there with fearsome authority. While Josh collects a few personal things from the living quarters above the bar, Charlie is left alone for a few moments to ruminate and, as he remembers, Eddie enters to distribute little American flags to the massive booths and the heavy oak tables, and a flood of memories fills the room.
Charlie sees himself in the 1940s, still in his pram with Eddie standing over him, already hell-bent on rearing the infant as an all-American boy. Eddie is a Jewish immigrant, fiercely proud of his new country. He has already lost his accent and is determined to assimilate his family into the culture of his newfound paradise regained.
As the past materializes, we are introduced to a menagerie of immigrants, ranging from Charlie's Yiddish mama Gusta (Americanized as "Gloria" by Eddie) to the colorful characters who patronized the bar. There is the grizzled Nick and his paramour Hannah Di Blindeh, a mysterious blind woman whose face is a tabula rasa behind dark glasses. There is also Finney the Book, the Irish oddsmaker, who runs his pari-mutuel enterprise from Eddie's pay phone. Most memorable is the richly textured figure of Zaretsky, an actor from the Yiddish theatre whose resonant baritone embodies a cry from the soul.
At the play's center is Joey, Charlie's scrappy older brother, who is the pride of the family and especially of his father, Eddie. Joey is the toughest pugilist on the block, seriously infatuated by a possibility of a boxing career. But, despite his assimilation, Joey is unable to ignore the call of conscience when news of Jews being slaughtered in Poland reaches into the haven of his father's house. And Joey pays the ultimate price.
Over this patriarchal kingdom reigns Eddie, ably portrayed by Joseph Costa, a tyrant with a heart of gold whose world is shattered by the death of his favorite son in the war.
Eddie's devastation is both understood and shared by the audience. His rejection of ethnic identity and religion is a bitter retreat from the harsh reality of his pinched existence. Actors Theatre of Phoenix has mounted a stunning physical production. Gro Johre's resplendent barroom setting (crowned with the most woebegone head of a moose ever to wander into the path of a bullet) is replete with the solid magnificence of a bygone era. Paul Black's elegantly sculpted lighting etches the images deep on the retina of our mind's eye. Susan Johnson-Hood's costumes evoke the pre-World War II ambiance of Canal Street in Manhattan to perfection.
But, naturally, it is the life created by the actors that makes this tintype hum with the vibrant pulse of an immigrant family. Pinkerton's production is given a strong center by the sensitive and compelling performance of Randy Messersmith (co-artistic director of Southwest Shakespeare Company) in the narrative role of Charlie.
From the perspective of a younger son, it is apparent the author still struggles to accept his father's devotion to the older brother, but like the grain of sand that creates the pearl, we must accept Eddie's abrasive favoritism as the catalyst that created this play. As the petty obsessions take their toll on the family, we sense that these little losses are echoed on a national scale. Gardner has captured the passing of an era in America, when our innocence, as a paradise, was lost to the clear-eyed responsibilities of the present. All the actors are superb. Supporting the brilliant work of Messersmith and Costa is an ensemble of remarkable characters. Jody Lee Olhava is deeply moving as Gusta, while the dependable Bob Sorenson makes the most of Finney the Book. Dave McKibben is a jocular, ursine Nick, sharing life with his blind lover, played with an eerie depth by Susan Donovan.
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Josh Abromovitz is beguiling as both the heroic Joey and his namesake Josh. Michael Tassoni and Joe Nuttall are effective as cliche-ridden Mafiosi who are thrown out of the bar when they try to intimidate Eddie. Stirring to the heart is Irv Ziff as the Yiddish actor Zaretsky, and the incandescent Philip Dawkins in the role of Young Charlie proves once again that he is the best young actor in the Valley. All the actors are aided immeasurably by dialect coach Barbara Acker.
Conversations With My Father is a triumph of artistry over the bumbling sincerity of a middle-aged author still trying to come to terms with sibling jealousy. You will laugh and cry in the course of this long day's journey into autobiography, and you will emerge with the bittersweet appreciation of how universal experience becomes when it is discovered in the particular.
Actors Theatre of Phoenix's production of Conversations With My Father continues through Sunday, May 26, in Stage West at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe.