Kaufman’s Barber Shopby Robert Sugarman. Directed by Regge Life.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Jonathan Croy, Kate Abbruzzese, Robert Lohbauer, Malcolm Ingram, Thomas Brazzle; photo: Kevin Sprague
"I haven’t forgotten the past!"
In 1925, in Syracuse, New York, a man fights for the right to believe in those often-stated American values of truth, justice, equal rights for all, and the ability of any man to make something of himself in spite of prejudice, pretense and perversity. He also believes in the high values of friendship, in the trust that comes from making moves in the same ways as his friends, in all that comes from that certain companionship that crosses the borders of wealth, race, and religion. In 1925 this man struggles to maintain his beliefs.
A good friend has suddenly changed all of this. An old friend has become a stranger whose behavior throws all of their shared past into a widening, deepening chasm. All of this has been portrayed in a new play, "Kaufman’s Barber Shop" by Robert Sugarman. It is a deep and heart-felt play, a memory play with memories that cannot even be tapped in its two hour performance time. The play takes place over two weeks but it stretches forward and backward in time in the thoughts and reminiscences of its players.
Jake Kaufman has moved out of the Jewish ghetto in Syracuse and opened his shop on the main street of town where Jews, traditional Jews, are not really welcome. It is a good, successful business and among his customers are two friends from the old days on the Jewish hill, Jesse Markowitz, a local merchant, and Morris Schwartz, an assistant district attorney for the city. These three sing barbershop quartet with the assistance of the black shoe-shine boy, Walter Henderson. They sing for themselves and for the pretty, Irish manicurist, Maggie Fitzgerald. It is Walter, whose personal story has a deep effect on the men, who accidentally drives the wedge into their friendship. By the end of the second act it is Walter who has the most to lose.
There are two plays built into this one play. The story of friendship driven to extremes is the framework; it is the love story that cannot easily make its way into the foreground that is framed by the growth of all that is ugly in the older men. With the show now closed I must present what follows in the past tense, much as the play did. But there is happy news that comes farther down the page.
Walter was played with an earnestness and a fine sense of the period of the piece by Thomas Brazzle. His stammer when addressing white folks moved brilliantly into oblivion when his comfort level brought him into parity with his "betters." Walter actually only has equals and he knows it deep down inside. He has befriended a mentoring poet named Langston Hughes who has encouraged Walter to write. He has learned from his own father what a man is made of and it is that father’s fatal accident that has impelled him to express himself brilliantly. Brazzle made this all so vibrantly real that his resistance to emotional impulses was as painful to us as it was to his character.
Kate Abbruzzese brought a genteel poignancy to the character of Maggie. All three men, married and settled, responded to her femininity with an almost fatal attraction. Her wonderful way of playing the wise, street-wise, girl from the Irish quarter of the city allowed Abbruzzese to mess with them while retaining a distance that only seemed to keep them coming back for another dose of her humor and talent with their nails. It was easy to understand Walter’s uneasy attraction to her as well, two underdogs, each with their own way of handling the company they keep. At the center of the play is their special friendship that offers a world of difficult beginnings and conclusions.
As the merchant, Jesse, the actor Malcolm Ingram added another superb realization to his long list of fine characters. His strength these days seem to be playing the weaknesses in good men and with Jesse he had a fine example of such a man. A loyal friend to Jake Kaufman he uses what most men would be ashamed to expose and it is that loyalty and that need combined that made such a superb human being out of Ingram’s Jesse. To hear him and watch him was to love him and that is what Walter, Maggie and especially Jake did in this play.
As Morris, the legal mind within this familial trio, Jonathan Croy gave one of the finest performances of his career. The highlight of this play, really, is the moment in act one when he first turns from congenial and jovial to suspicious and conniving. The mercurial change was not so much subtle as it was that untraditional "on a dime" sort of turn-around. The remarkable subtlety in it was the realization that it had happened, that you saw and heard it happen but that you didn’t believe you got it right, at least not for the moment. The plot thickens with this alteration and the relationships become reestablished through it. Croy was marvelous as the friendly companion in the Americanization of his two buddies. However, when the dark side of the man’s character is exposed and replaces the casual friendship, Croy became every refugee’s nemesis, the anticipated gestapo in other-words, and his performance from that point on was a nightmare made real.
However the play still belongs to Kaufman. Robert Lohbauer as Jake was both the heart and the mind of the play. His performance, one of his best, perhaps his all-time best, moved us to tears and left us feeling that special pride we exhibit when someone does something wonderful, and almost selfless, in the cause of mankind. His mission, though personal, is a universal one and as Lohbauer addressed his oldest and best friend, now his betrayer and his personal pogrom-provider, there was a clarity and other-worldly strength that can come to a man who finally sees his purpose and his special connection with God’s plan. Though I cherish some of Lohbauer’s earlier performances this is the one that will stay with me the longest.
Sugarman’s play is powerful and about as straightforward as can be. It reminded me of a lyric by Maxwell Anderson, written more than a decade after the time of this play: "How can you tell an American? Has he any distinguishing flavor?" This play brings into focus the variety of American savor, from one ethnicity to another, each character brings forward the essence of the American spirit and Sugarman knows that not every American is a man, or woman, you can respect when the chips are down. He has done this very well, giving us people we can like and then taking them to where they need to go, even if we are unwilling to go there with them all.
Regge Life has made this all very real in the real setting of a barber shop on North Street in Pittsfield, MA. He has taken these very honest characters and plopped them down in front of us where we wait for our turns in the chairs. This site-specific production was just what this play needed (although I think a traditional production would have served it well the proximity of "them" and "us" added another layer of reality to the whole thing).
Now for the happy news. Rumor has it that "Kaufman’s Barber Shop" will be taking over the storefront in Pittsfield again next summer. In a partial announcement made on closing night (the night I saw the play) it seems that the success of this run will lead to a "revival" next summer. So make plans to get your tickets early. The shop has two chairs - some waiting. And the waiting is ever so worthwhile.
Thomas Brazzle and Kate Abbruzzese; photo: Kevin Sprague
Jonathan Croy and Robert Lohbauer; photo: Kevin sprague
Kaufman’s Barber Shop was presented by Shakespeare and Company at Upstreet Barbers on North Street in Pittsfield, MA.