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Thursday, Oct 6, 2022

Mendel Honors Hillel in Family Comedy

The first Theatre Department faculty show of the semester ran with huge success Oct. 30 to Nov. 1 in the Wright Memorial Theater to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Hillel, an official College organization that provides an outlet for those interested in Judaism and Jewish issues. Mendel, Inc., a play by prolific Vaudeville and Broadway writer David Freedman that explores the early Jewish immigrant experience in New York City, was fully staged by Professor of Theatre Richard Romagnoli after the script spent many years in an uncatalogued Wyoming archive.

“When Rabbi Ira Schiffer approached me two years ago about producing a play in honor of Hillel’s 60th anniversary, I immediately agreed, but I didn’t want to do a serious play,” Romagnoli said. “I wanted to do something that was comedic and that I thought not only reflected specifically Jewish culture in New York City, but also the talent of Jewish writers and performers. I didn’t quite know where that was going to go.”

By chance, Romagnoli happened upon a 1932 film about a struggling Jewish family on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, The Heart of New York, and he was immediately drawn to the film’s comedy, heart and depiction of Jewish-American immigrant culture. Upon discovering that the film was based on a stage play, Mendel, Inc. by David Freedman, and that the play was adapted from the author’s novel Mendel Marantz, Romagnoli read the novel, written when Freedman was only 21 years-old, and embarked on a nationwide search to obtain the more elusive play script.

The journey to find the script put Romagnoli in contact first with the artistic director of a San Diego theatre that had hosted a reading of the play five years ago, who then suggested he contact the reading’s dramaturge, a University of California San Diego Professor of Theatre who connected Romagnoli with playwright David Freedman’s grandson. He informed Romagnoli that his grandfather’s papers were housed in the David Freedman Collection, uncatalogued, at the American Heritage Collection at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. Fortunately, the collection’s archivist was able to unearth the play, Freedman’s only formal drama piece, and scan and email Romagnoli a copy of the original 1929 typewritten Broadway manuscript.

It is the details of Mendel, Inc., the character eccentricities, meticulously planned production design and subtly poignant family interactions that make the play about a struggling Lower East Side Jewish family in the early 20th century so readily accessible to all. From the first image on stage, a film clip of street signs with names like “Levy, Levi & Levee,” “Katz & sons” and “Goldfaub and Goldfaub,” to the richly imagined mise en scene of the “Shtrudel, Schnaps & Props Plumbing” street floor apartment that houses Jewish patriarch Mendel Marantz and his family, the audience is at once immersed in the Marantz’s culture. The Marantz family dynamics immediately appear as younger daughter Mimi, played with appropriate pizzazz by Akhila Khanna ’17, dances to popular music by the street window, firmly transported to the adolescent dream world that transcends the struggle of her family’s existence, and young son Jakie retrieves his wrinkled pants from their position as a makeshift tie around the family radio. Nolan Ellsworth ’17 delighted in his comic portrayal of Jakie, whose lack of front teeth and severe stutter did not hinder his professed desire to be an  actor and orator. The Marantz family is full of dreams, especially Mendel Marantz, an aging inventor who believes so strongly in the eventual success of one of his creations that he lazily naps – multiple times a day – and refuses to relinquish his mind to the tedium of the working world.

Robert Zuckerman, the 40-year veteran actor Romagnoli chose to play the title character, had previously collaborated with the director on four productions through the Potomic Theatre Project (PTP/NYC). The men worked closely throughout the summer from New York City and Middlebury to explore the depths of the play and trim the running time to two hours with intermission.

“You will hear the language as written in this play, which calls for accents that in some ways sound a bit foreign to us,” Zuckerman said. “Richard and I had knock down, drag out battles over the internet for months about it because I didn’t want the characters to sound so Jewish, but at the same time, if you look at the script, one has to read the text out loud to get a sense of how the language is written, and the way you deal with it as an actor depends on your interpretation working with the director and with your fellow actors.”

Mendel’s lighthearted charm –  “What is a wife? A grapefruit – naturally sour” – and optimism in the success of his machines is contrasted against the dilapidated state of his apartment, with its streaked windows, dirty tablecloth and non-reflective mirror.

Mendel’s irresponsibility with the family funds and refusal to work adds to the stress of his wife, Zelde, who disapproves of her husband’s unfulfilled inventions as she slaves over the family’s washing, cooking and cleaning and imagines a better life for her eldest daughter, Lillian, played with enchanting sweetness and emotional fragility by Caitlin Rose Duffy ’15.5. Joelle Mendoza-Etchart ’15 carried the weight of the leading female role, Zelde, with impressive skill, playing against on-stage husband Zuckerman with confidence, nuanced emotional displays and just enough hysteria to make her character both believable and comedic.

Though each member of the Marantz family has their own comedic eccentricities, it is Zelde’s slick brother, Bernard Shnaps, played by August Rosenthal ’17 in the stand-out performance of the night, and his hard of hearing business partner, Sam Shtrudel, portrayed with masterful comic timing by Alexander Burnett ’16, who are the real comedic foils of the play. The roles of Bernard and Sam were specfically written for the famous Vaudeville team of Smith and Dale, born Joseph Sultzer and Charles Marks. Propelled by their many business ventures in all fields, the two try to implicate themselves in scenarios ranging from Lillian’s love life to the patent on Mendel’s machine.

Rosenthal’s booming voice and commanding stage presence helped him to deliver lines like “I don’t know what I said, but I meant it!” and “I like it straight up and down, and sideways, too” with seeming ease, embodying the physically and textually demanding role in virtually every scene in the play.

“One of the reasons that I’m here is because of my relationship with Middlebury students and how much I have enjoyed working with them in the past and indeed on this show, also,” Zuckerman said. “They are smart, they are talented, they are focused, and they really work hard, and I think it’s impressive. I don’t know how in God’s name they do what they do, but they do it.”

Through the help of the building’s janitor, Bessie, enthusiastically played with excellent accent and delightfully subtle facial and physical expression by Emma Eastwood-Paticchio ’15, Mendel develops his masterpiece cleaning machine, a human sized laundering-scrubbing-dishwashing-in one contraption on wheels crafted from a garbage bin, pail and broom brushes that allows Mendel to embrace his domestic role with vigor and efficiency. “The combination housecleaner” is the fulfillment of Mendel’s dream of a better life for his family, and when it is optioned for production, it is the Marantzs’ ticket to the upper classes formerly only accessible in their minds. Mendel’s journey to success is bittersweet, however, because his use mismanagement of money and secret partnership with Bessie alienate him from the ones he loves most. Rich and alone at the end of the first act, Mendel is still a disappointment to his family and to himself.

When the second act of the play opens, Mendel has transformed his apartment into an established destination for the upper echelons of New York, and the set designers fully utilized the proscenium stage by filling it with large illuminated columns, velvet settees and a loveseat that bore no sign of wear.

Though a small character, Mendel’s very posh, tuxedoed servant, Halibut, played with great reserve by Jacob Dombroski ’17, successfully poked fun at the conformity of the higher classes while eliciting many laughs from the audience. Halibut’s robotic movements and clipped British speech, coupled with his mindless acceptance of high society rules, stood in stark contrast to Mendel’s eclectic lower class mannerisms and friends who ate with napkins tucked into their shirts instead of on their laps. Dombroksi managed to maintain a facial neutrality comparable to the Queen’s Guards while delivering sufficiently pretentious and monotone lines, eliciting laughs from the audience each time he simply appeared on stage with his carefully choreographed smooth movements.

A particularly enjoyable scene drawing from the physical Vaudevillian tradition occurs in the second act when Bernard nervously makes his move on Bessie, now in outrageously flamboyant attire, on a loveseat, only to have his arm fall asleep. Bessie and Bernard change places on the sofa and Shtrudel takes his place by Bernard to reawaken his arm, but the interaction only escalates when Bernard’s leg falls asleep, causing Bessie to flip over on top of Bernard, decadent robe and feathers covering the now uproarious scene as Bernard’s limp body slides from the couch. It is, of course, at this time that Zelde and Lillian enter the room, assuming the worst from the interaction. The audience loved the physical comedy of the play, which appeared enough to elicit laughs and did not overstay its welcome.

“I feel that the production’s style is very consistent with the demands of the script,” Romagnoli said in the program. “Freedman was a master of the one-liner, of epigrammatic wit, absurd rhetorical non-sequiturs, of shtick and sketch comedy.”

Mendel’s isolation in the splendor of his new home is broken by the poignant confrontation between Mendel and Zelde, now richly attired, when he exclaims, “All I wanted - a little something from the heart, and that I never got.” Whether he was working on an invention or trying to create a slice of the good life in the familiarity of the Lower East Side, Mendel, rich or poor, never felt the full support of his family, and his family never felt that he was working to support them.

More complications ensue in the second act, but in the end, the Marantz family is reunited after all they have experienced. Though they quarrel, bicker and still chide Mendel over his wrinkled clothes, the family bond is stronger than ever, and Mendel’s incredible achievement of the traditional American Dream is realized.

The play transcends the Jewish immigrant experience to touch on the very human realization that money is no replacement for family. The demands of high society, from eating fingerling sandwiches instead of pastrami to maintaining a social calendar of golf, tennis, lunches, teas and dinners, cannot replace Mendel’s pleasure in spending time with his large, definitely crazy family, and the lavish reconstruction of his apartment is only an empty shell without those he loves.

“I’m very moved by this play, because I feel like these are people who are very close to my heart, and I think that the experiences of these people are generalizable to all of us, because it’s about a family, and keeping a roof over your head, raising kids, getting them married, secured and taken care of so you can go and do what you do,” Romagnoli said. “I think it’s very accessible even though it was written in 1929.”