Arts & Culture » Theater

Strings Attached: New Jewish doesn't fiddle around with The People's Violin



Independent filmmaker Solomon Shankman (Richard Strelinger) is at an impasse professionally and personally. He has dozens of projects in varying states of doneness, and his long-suffering wife, Nirit (Ruth Heyman), seems less and less happy to soothe his pride when things go wrong. A bit of good fortune comes in the form of a commission to make a film about his famous father, Sidney Shankman (Richard Lewis), the great Jewish psychoanalyst and a lion of the faith.

Sol and Sidney don't have the easiest relationship; the elder man is forceful and direct, a man who has spent his career helping Holocaust survivors rebuild their lives and writing fourteen books about Judaism with God. His son's habit of filming everything he does passed from profession to narcissism a long time ago, and Sidney has been telling him this for years. Sidney's personal life is a closed book consisting of three anecdotes: His parents and brother died in a house fire when he was eleven, he once picked up horse manure with his bare hands to make some money, and he once made rugelach for his brother's birthday. The first interview hits all three and then comes to an acrimonious end when Sol pushes for more details about the fire and how it made his father feel. The first interview is also the final one, as Sidney proceeds to die of a heart attack. Another project left undone, just as Dad predicted.

While helping his mother go through his father's belongings, Sol finds a strange mechanical violin — this New Jewish Theatre production's titular People's Violin — the sort of nonsense his father would have thrown away. Sol is fascinated by it and tracks down the maker, Big Jack Carver (Lewis again), to ask how it ended up in his father's possession. Carver's a garrulous huckster who talks about himself and recounts two anecdotes about his younger brother, and they don't involve rugelach. Suddenly the film's back on, but this time it's an investigation of Sol's father's mysterious past.

Strelinger gives a terrific performance as a man obsessed with the idea that his father has lied to him from birth. He's likable, but the narcissism eats away these kinder parts, leaving him as remote from his own kids as his father was from him. Lewis is similarly excellent in a number of roles, grounding Sidney with a warmth that his patients respond to if his son doesn't. Terry Meddows jumps through a half-dozen personalities with uncommon grace, even if his Israeli accent drifts toward Ireland at times.

Director Deanna Jent keeps playwright Charlie Varon's action moving nicely and gives us the poignant image of Sol tearing up a birthday card from his daughter and throwing down the pieces, which are then trampled and trod by the rest of the cast for the duration.

Family drama tends to do that to the younger members.

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