January 16, 2019

On Strongmen and

Matt Gottlieb as Noriega and Max Wright as the archbishop in “The General & the Archbishop.”

‘The General & the Archbishop’

Donald Freed is a rarity among playwrights: He is primarily an ideologue who, instead of producing documentary films or constructing journalistic accounts of the “truth” behind the news headlines, writes plays. What he appears to do is imagine a specific scene or a dramatic situation that illuminates the political landscape, usually in ways and with perceptions that are strikingly at odds with what passes as the conventional wisdom.

“Secret Honor,” his one-man portrait of Richard Nixon on the eve of the president’s resignation over Watergate, was a highly charged and surprising drama that managed to evoke compassion for a man whose policies and practices Freed loathed. It was a compelling theatrical piece and all the more surprising for its unexpected “take” on Nixon.

Now, in “The General & the Archbishop,” he is once again looking at political history and its leading actors. The General is Panama’s former president, Manuel Noriega, and the scene that Freed imagines occurs just before the strongman surrenders to the CIA and the American forces that have invaded Panama. The Archbishop, weary and shed long ago of illusions, is the Vatican’s envoy in Panama City. He is the go-between who will deliver Noriega to the Americans or to a foreign embassy, if one can be found that will take him in.

It is his vision of history — cleareyed, cynical, almost detached, that dominates the play and offers us Freed’s view of our corrupt political life.

He is allied with God, if indeed God exists, unlike the Vatican, which has joined forces with the more sordid realities of political mendacity.

The play itself is driven by a series of dramatic threats and confessions, all by Noriega, that lay out the true facts of history — according to Freed — how Noriega was set in place by the CIA; how the United States wanted him to launch an invasion against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua; how drugs and drug money were the underpinnings of America and American policy; how the Vatican itself was complicit in this vast Western conspiracy to exploit the poor and the vulnerable. And, then, just as in “Secret Honor,” the twist: the vulnerability of Noriega, a victim himself, the poor boy from the provinces who wanted, eventually, to use the drug money to help his own people as well as himself.

Some basic problems follow from this approach to theater. There is, for example, a tendency for pedagogy to overwhelm drama. There is also a need to share the writer’s “take” on the nature of man and society. For readers of “In Our Times” and the old I.F. Stone newsletter, it is an easy leap of faith — as it is probably for those who tend to see all power as corrupt and all political leaders as base (until they fall). For the rest, Freed’s spin on the facts requires an act of faith or a drama so moving and enveloping as to render disbelief irrelevant.

In “The General & the Archbishop,” the playwright is helped mightily by two good performances: Matt Gottlieb in the role of Noriega and Max Wright, most commanding, as the archbishop, the conscience of the play. Indeed, Wright’s performance is reason enough to catch this play.

The direction by Maria Gobetti rightly emphasizes the confessional unfolding of Noriega’s character, and shapes a drama out of the contrast between the general’s energy (and belief in himself) and the archbishop’s despair (and faltering but still held belief in God).

At the Victory Theater, 3326 Victory Blvd., Burbank, Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun. 7 p.m. For information, call (818) 841-5421. — Gene Lichtenstein, Editor-in-Chief

‘Shlemiel the First’

Shlemiel the First” is a musical that — like Sally Field — you really want to like.

It is based on the writings of the master storyteller Isaac Bashevis Singer, boasts a first-class klezmer band, and was put together by creative collaborators of national standing.

So what could go wrong? Foremost is the attempt to stretch out a whimsical, though psychologically acute, Singer short story for children into a two-act burlesque skit, replete with clownish physical shticks and erotic byplay.

The kernel embedded in this superstructure at the Geffen Playhouse is the short story “When Shlemiel Went to Warsaw.” In it, our hero, the shamas of Chelm, sets out for the big city, gets turned around in his direction, and, after one day and night, arrives back in Chelm.

He is welcomed by his long-suffering wife and their children, but Shlemiel is convinced that he has arrived at a second, mirror-image Chelm, where everybody happens to look the same as in Chelm One.

The conundrum is presented to the famous elders of Chelm, renowned for finding elaborate, foolish solutions to simple problems; they agree that there are indeed two Chelms and, therefore, two Shlemiels.

Since somebody, in the absence of Shlemiel One, has to care for the Shlemiel children while Mrs. Shlemiel sells her vegetables at the market, what to do? The answer, conclude the sages after due deliberation, is to pay Shlemiel Two a small stipend to live in his old house and watch the kids — precisely the same arrangement that prevailed before.

Accepting the situation, the “former” husband and wife rediscover their basic affection for each other and live sort of happily thereafter.

This reviewer is no expert on Singer, so, to check my reaction to the play, I turned to an authority on the great Yiddish writer (who, by the way, won the Nobel Prize, not the Pulitzer Prize, as the box office recording has it).

Our resident maven is Dr. Janet Hadda, UCLA professor of Yiddish, whose captivating biography, “Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life,” has just been published by Oxford University Press.

After praising the production’s joyous music and imaginative sets, Hadda writes:

“By featuring such slapstick elements as a year-round dreidel and a yenta with a giant pickle, the play reinforces stereotypes of vulgarity and backwardness about a culture that was actually vastly complex, marvelously sophisticated and sometimes even avant-garde. The result is a tendency toward caricature — while audiences may be convinced, I fear, that they’ve experienced the real thing.”

Hadda is right on the money in her criticism (particularly of the awful green papier-mâché pickle, which comes down on the chief sage’s head and stomach like a clown’s pig bladder) as well as in her praise.

Robert Israel’s askew and slightly surrealistic stage set, reflecting a touch of Chagall, with a dollop of Dalí, is wonderful.

Ditto for the eight-piece Golden State Klezmers and Catherine Zuber’s ingenious costumes, which allow the actors to change genders in record time.

The musical score by Hankus Netsky and Zalmen Mlotek, with lyrics by Arnold Weinstein, has its moments, particularly in such numbers as the morbidly funny “He’s Going to Die,” as well as “Twos” and “My One and Only Shlemiel.”

The latter duet allows Alice Playten as Mrs. Shlemiel to display her appealing voice, which, complemented by her warm stage presence, makes Playten the most effective member of the cast.

Thomas Derrah is pleasant enough in the title role, and Charles Levin is frequently amusing as Groman Ox, the wisest of the wise, at least in Chelm.

Puzzlingly, in the final scene, Groman Ox admits that he may not be such a sage after all, which undercuts not only the play’s basic premise but everything that’s gone before.

More apropos, and profound, are the closing words in the original Singer story, when Shlemiel muses:

“Those who leave Chelm end up in Chelm.

“Those who remain in Chelm are certainly in Chelm.

“All the world is one big Chelm.”

“Shlemiel the First,” conceived and adapted by Robert Brustein and directed and choreographed by David Gordon, continues through June 8 at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood. For ticket information, call (310) 208-5454 , and for Telecharge, call (800) 233-3123. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor