Arts & Culture » Theater

Shtick or Schlock: James Sherman's farcical tribute to Yiddish theater has everything but the laughs



Is there anything more enjoyable than watching good actors work? And when those actors are portraying actors, there's an added wrinkle of fun. Not everyone in Jacob and Jack, the time-traveling comedy currently on stage at New Jewish Theatre, is an actor. There's a beleaguered agent, a frisky stage mother or two and even a couple of overworked stage managers. But when you consider that all six performers play two roles — one in the present and another in the 1930s — there are enough actors portraying actors to cast several companies of A Life in the Theatre.

The plot (at least, the first one) occurs backstage at the Merle Reskin Theatre in the Chicago Loop. Television actor Jack Shore (a sad-eyed Bobby Miller), best known for his commercials as "the flying-carpet guy," has returned to the Windy City to appear in a tribute to his grandfather, Jacob Shemerinsky, onetime star of the storied Yiddish theater. The other two roles in the staged reading are to be enacted by Jack's long-suffering wife, Lisa (Kari Ely), and a young ingénue (Julie Layton) who turns out to be as talented as she is beautiful. Jack's insistence on not wanting to rehearse is about to boomerang.

But before Jack can publicly humiliate himself in front of a full house, Jacob and Jack takes a magic-carpet ride into the past, and we instantly find ourselves in the Great Depression. We learn that backstage life in the '30s was much as it is today; only the names have changed. Jack is now his grandfather Jacob; Robin, the gifted ingénue, is now Rachel, the butcher's untalented (but still-beautiful) daughter. Perhaps most significantly, the Reskin Theatre is now the storied Blackstone, once one of the most important venues in Chicago. Back and forth the action swiftly switches, often with the opening and closing of a door. If this plot contrivance sounds confusing, be reassured that onstage it is not. One of the strengths of James Sherman's script is the clarity that he brings to his shenanigans.

As amiably directed by Edward Coffield, everyone is pleasantly agreeable. The cast also includes Justin Ivan Brown as both a fey stage manager and (yes, you guessed it) an aspiring actor, Terry Meddows as Jack's agent and Donna Weinsting as a couple of loving and protective mothers.

Everything is in place for a jovial and nostalgic evening — with just one caveat. There aren't any laughs. Perhaps that's an overstatement. There might be two or three, but certainly not enough to sustain a farce, even one as short as this one. Sherman's idea of humor is to rhyme Muni (as in Paul) with Clooney (as in George). He has also concocted a backstage environment where the actors are crammed into three small dressing rooms. The set has five eminently slammable doors (a necessity for farce), but there's nowhere for the actors to go after they enter through these sturdy doors. This is one of the most inert farces you'll ever see.

Not every play can be Hedda Gabler, but with so many gifted actors on the same stage, I might have hoped to see them performing in better material than this. I cannot speak to the veracity of the script's depiction of the final ragtag days of the Yiddish theater in the 1930s, but Jacob and Jack reminded me of the Hollywood heyday of the '30s or '40s when people went to the movies primarily to spend time with their favorite stars even if the plot was negligible.

So it is here. The actors are appealing. New Jewish Theatre is comfortably air-conditioned and the play itself is only 82 minutes long (plus intermission). So go. Enjoy. But leave any expectations at home.

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