By Bruce Ward
Produced by Theater Alliance
Directed by Paul Douglas Michnewicz
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
In 1983, concert pianist Elliott Liteman (Michael Kramer) discovered that he had contracted AIDS. He watched in horror and helplessness as dozens of his closest friends, and tens of thousands of other people, died. How did he, among all the sufferers, manage to survive until the discovery of medicines sufficient to control the disease’s worst effects? Who knows? Yet here he is, nearly twenty–five years later. He no longer gives concerts. Instead, he lives in his apartment with his spouse-in-fact Stephen (Kevin Boggs) on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, receiving disability, morose and loaded with survivor’s guilt. Just past fifty, he’s in the throes of a bad midlife crisis. (The first step of such a crisis is to realize that it’s not midlife; at fifty, you’re about two-thirds of the way through.) This particular episode is triggered when he reads the obituary of Elliott Lightman, a stranger, who has died at the unacceptably young age of sixty-seven.
Stephen, an actor who’s about to embark on a 3 month tour of Fiddler on the Roof, can’t jolly Elliott out of his mood, so instead he goes for a jog in the Manhattan pre-dawn. Nine days later, Elliott is still in his bathrobe, still bemoaning Mr. Lightman’s fate and by extension his own, when he hears a hammering on his door. He is shocked to discover his brother Neil (Jim Jorgensen), who hasn’t visited in years. Stephen, worried about Elliott’s increasing self-pity and reclusiveness, has dispatched his bumptious brother to shake him up. Shortly thereafter, their father Jake (Bill Hamlin) shows up, carrying the ingredients for a dinner he learned to prepare in cooking class. It’s time, they decide, to share a Sabbath meal.
Problem is, it’s only two o’clock on Friday afternoon…or is it? To Elliott’s bewildered apprehension, the hours pass like minutes. And what’s that condo building doing there, blocking out his good light? These anomalies don’t bother Neil or Jake.
Instead, Jake slips a CD of Jewish folk music into Elliott’s player, and, as the strains of Tumbalalaika fill the apartment, they start chopping, scraping and seasoning to the rhythm of the relentlessly joyful music. Elliott climbs out of his depression long enough to help, and we are treated, improbably, to the Dance of the Sabbath Cooks. Glasses and cutlery become percussion. Challa is braided, brisket is smothered with vegetables, the soup is peppered. Food is wafted from table to oven and back again as Tumbalalaika plays on. (Hear a beautiful rendition of the song for yourself at the end of this review.)
Amidst the pleasures of chicken soup and brisket, Elliott recounts the pain of watching good men die as the AIDS epidemic advanced. Neil counters by invoking the September 11, 2001 attacks, in which thirty-seven people in his accounting firm lost their lives. And Jake has the most horrifying memory of all: the Holocaust. “That’s the trump card, dad,” Elliott concedes, throwing up his hands.
“Why must we have a competition for suffering?” Neil asks. Why indeed? Bruce Ward’s prize-winning play, which is receiving its world premiere at Theater Alliance, uses the invocation of suffering to mask the celebration of life. Elliott may have survivor’s guilt, but he is a survivor. What a grand thing it is to be able to savor a good brisket with family! Or to be able to coax beautiful music out of a piano. Or to be able to stand, as Elliott eventually learns, over the graves of friends and realize that you loved and were loved.
So, has Theater Alliance gone soft in the post-Skidmore era? Hell, no! While Ward is willing to occasionally bathe a scene in sentiment, Michnewicz’s tight direction of this excellent ensemble assures that we never wallow in it. While Elliott is prone to self-pity, Neil, Jake and Stephen are far too full of life to ever fall prey to mawkishness. Fiddler and Lazarus – as much Emma Lazarus, who famously called for “your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” as her biblical counterpart – serve as the twin pillars of this fine play. Each of them point Elliott to the glorious inevitability of life.
That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been some changes at Theater Alliance. The company is well-known for its minimalist sets,, but Michnewicz brought in Dan Conway to build a fabulously detailed replica of a high-quality apartment. Dan Covey lights the small space with great subtlety, and Mark Anduss invokes the perfect aural compliment to Ward’s yearning prose. I have seen the future of Theater Alliance and I have to tell you – it’s swell.
(Running time: 70 minutes.) Lazarus Syndrome continues Thursdays through Sundays until September 16. Sunday shows are at 2. All other shows are at8. There will be a signed performance on Friday, August 24. Tickets: $30 Call 1.866.811.4111 or ordering on-line.
- An historic concert of cantorial music was taped in the revered Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, Sept 10 & 11, 2003. In a candlelit setting of this 17th century synagogue Cantors Alberto Mizrahi, Naftali Herstik and Benzion Miller performed accompanied by the Netherlands Theater Orchestra, London’s Ne’imah Singers and conducted by Jules van Hessen. Here is a brief video as they perform the Russian folksong Tumbalalaika. (Many thanks to Joel for this footnote.)