Story: Jack Shore makes his living primarily as the “flying carpet guy” in TV commercials. He’s held that gig for 11 years and nervously awaits the go-ahead from his client for another annual extension through his agent, Ted. In the meantime, Jack has traveled from Los Angeles to Chicago at the request of his mother Esther to appear in a benefit tribute to his grandfather, legendary Yiddish Theater star Jacob Shemerinsky.
The performance takes place in the Merle Reskin Theatre, which just happens to be what the old Blackstone Theatre, built in 1912, was re-named in 1992. Thus, Jack and Jacob, their wives, agents and assorted managers, performers and girlfriends move between a trio of dressing rooms and two eras 75 years apart as they prepare for audiences that surprise one and disappoint the other in their size. Does Jack, who professes to never rehearse, have what it takes to pay due homage to his grandfather, a titan of the Yiddish stage who fiercely resisted the siren’s allure of the silver screen?
Highlights: Written by James Sherman, a prolific, Chicago-based playwright who has worked with Second City and since 1986 as playwright-in-residence with the Victory Gardens Theater, Jacob and Jack is a whimsical and charming valentine to theater artists in general and the history of the Yiddish Theater in particular.
Originally presented in 2010 as a one-act comedy, it’s been wisely divided into two acts for its New Jewish Theatre presentation, which actually works quite well. It still moves breezily in about one hour and 45 minutes, but the intermission smoothly serves as a break between the witty wisecracks of the first act and the more physical schtick and pratfalls associated with farce in the second stanza. NJT artistic associate Edward Coffield gets the most out of a very talented and nimble sextet of players who make Jacob and Jack a frequently funny pleasure.
Other Info: Crucial to the success of any worthy farce is a set design that allows for frequent entrances and exits by a cluster of performers moving at breakneck speed. That’s smoothly accomplished by scenic designer Robert Mark Morgan, who presents a suitably drab trio of dressing rooms in a century-old building, each with its own entrance as well as doors between the three rooms and a window at either end. The set and furniture are all rather lackluster and depressing, as would befit a creaking old structure, suitably lit by Kimberly Klearman’s lighting design.
Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes give us the flamboyant Jacob, with Jack spending most of his time dressed as his grandfather as well. We see a modern look sported by young actress Robin and the plainer garb of her earlier counterpart, a butcher’s daughter who has caught the eye of the womanizing Jacob, or the preppy attire of stage manager Don and the sporty look of youthful actor Moishe. Matthew Koch’s sound design, Christie Johnston’s scenic art and Robert van Dillen’s props help accentuate time and place, too.
Coffield’s direction of the cast is consistently engaging, with everyone ramping up in the rambunctious second act. It’s truly a marvel to watch all six players adeptly switch between their modern and historic characters with nary a flinch. There also are some witty moments when characters from the two eras collide in time with only a raised eyebrow in recognition.
Terry Meddows deliciously differentiates his roles as Jack’s shrewd manager and the sage old producer at the Blackstone. He portrays the former with a sprightly gait and confident manner, while the latter is depicted with a shuffle and a well-worn fedora that matches his deferential personality.
Likewise, Julie Layton’s hip young actress Robin is the model of confidence and mildly annoyed with the unwelcome advances of the middle-age Jack, while she conveys Rachel as terrified at the prospect of performing on stage with the famous and rakish Jacob, who eyes her as his latest conquest.
Bobby Miller demonstrates once again his expert comic delivery as both title characters, whether hiding under a coat at the prospect of acting before a packed house or smoothing over feelings with the long-suffering wives of Jacob and Jack. A bit where he impersonates Thespis himself shilling for an ancient vineyard is an hilarious highlight in a show filled with frantically funny moments.
Kari Ely shows her own versatility as the put-upon wives Leah and Lisa, even if those parts aren’t particularly well written. Donna Weinsting is equally adept as the suave mother of Jack and daughter of Jacob, with a little surprise of her own, and the staunchly traditional mother of Rachel who is conned by Jacob’s measured flattery. Justin Ivan Brown charmingly contrasts the effete stage manager Don with the wide-eyed optimism of Moishe, who is anxious to change his name and head to Hollywood to follow in the success of Yiddish star Paul Muni.
Sherman cleverly makes use of a real historic theater to put both eras on the same set. With Coffield’s precise and fluid direction and the impeccable instincts of the cast, Jacob and Jack is sharp, engaging and funny fodder for fans of farce.
Play: Jacob and Jack
Group: New Jewish Theatre
Venue: Wool Theatre, Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus
Dates: May 9, 10, 12, 13, 16, 17, 19, 20
Tickets: From $35.50 to $39.50; contact 442-3283 or newjewishtheatre.org
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb