September 17, 2019

Of Morality and Memory

Cast members, from left, Carlyle King, Jennifer Parsons(standing), Dorothy James and Rachel Davies.Toward the end of “The Yiddish Trojan Women” at the Theatre 40,the ghost of a woman murdered in a long-ago Polish pogrom begs hersister to “teach me how to look away,” to ignore the world’s miseriesand the worse miseries yet to come.

Carole Braverman’s play revolves around the lives of four women,living in 1980s Brooklyn, and examines the degrees of separation intheir willingness to face personal and global tragedy unflinchingly.

In the rather slow opening scene, we meet the Brodsky women:Brenda (Rachel Davies) is a brittle stand-up comic who will climbover bodies, including her own, to become a headliner. Her sisterAbigail (Jennifer Parsons), derided as a “victim groupie,” is goingto Guatemala to join the freedom fighters. And their cousin Tess(Carlyle King) is a professor of mythology whose score in themorality scale hovers somewhere between the two others. The threehave gathered to celebrate the fourth marriage of their grandmotherDevorah (Dorothy James), a lady, Brenda says, “who has known (in thebiblical sense) four husbands, not counting her own,” and who willsay of a pretty girl that she had “black hair like burned kugel.”

Like Cassandra in the original “Trojan Women” by Euripides,Abigail is fated to see present and future disasters clearly, and tohave her visions ignored. Sister Brenda is at the opposite moralpole, entirely self-centered, with an acerbic wit.

Tess is the most human and, therefore, the most interesting of thewomen. She is decent, highly intelligent and gets upset, like most ofus, when personal desires violate our proclaimed principles. She isthe sort who, while carrying on a tempestuous love affair with amarried man (Kenna James), worries about the feelings of the deceivedwife.

Grandma Devorah is the feisty one, although, as her Alzheimer’sdisease progresses, she tends to confuse the present with the past,reliving an early love and the horrors of a Jewish childhood inPoland.

In its London run, “Yiddish Trojan Women” was lauded by the JewishChronicle as the “best Jewish play of the year.” It is an implicitcommentary on contemporary Jewish life that in this play — as in thedistantly related “The Sisters Rosensweig” by Wendy Wasserstein –Judaism as a religion is practically nonexistent.

The play picks up steam and interest as it progresses. Though ithas moments of humor, mainly in the relationship between theintellectual Tess and her Joe Six-Pack lover, its promotionallabeling as a comedy is misleading. Rather, it is a play of ideas andemotions, which is not afraid to tackle issues that really matter.

The cast, under the direction of Elinor Renfield, ranges from goodto excellent, with Dorothy James as Devorah in particularly goodform. With her noticeable but never overdone Polish accent, and themannerism of everyone’s Jewish immigrant grandmother, it actuallycomes as a surprise to learn that she is neither immigrant norJewish.

Kenna James (no relation to Dorothy) masters the difficult task ofportraying an uneducated but not unintelligent man, who cannotverbalize his emotional conflicts, but who feels them deeply evenwithout words.

“The Yiddish Trojan Women” plays at the Theatre 40 in BeverlyHills through Oct. 19 (no performance on Oct. 10, Erev Yom Kippur).For reservations, call (818) 789-8499.