Thursday, April 5, 2018

196 (2017-2018): Review: GOLDSTEIN (seen April 5, 2018)

“All That Glitters”

Like many others in the attentive audience crammed into Off Broadway’s uncomfortable Actors Temple Theatre—a still practicing shul—watching the multi-generational musical Goldstein, I recognized similarities to what I know of my own family history. You know the drill: immigrants arriving, starting businesses, raising families, passing on, and leaving a legacy that becomes part of the American fabric.
Jim Stanek, Aaron Galligan-Stierle, Megan McGinnis, Amie Bermowitz. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

Goldstein is distinctly reminiscent of other plays, most recently Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story, still playing at 59E59 Theaters, which looks at a similar dynamic from a Canadian perspective. It’s also the kind of nostalgic, across-the-decades approach Belva Plain made widely popular in such multi-generational novels as Evergreen

Plain’s novels attempted to avoid the pitfalls of writing about such circumstances. She once said, “I got sick of reading the same old story, told by Jewish writers, of the same old stereotypes—the possessive mothers, the worn-out fathers, all the rest of the neurotic rebellious unhappy self-hating tribe.” The book for Goldstein sometimes stumbles in just this way, yet, judging by the tissues dabbing nearby eyes and noses, that may be one of its strengths.

It’s narrated by the boyishly friendly Louis Goldstein (Zal Owen), who has come to the Actors Temple (where he says his family used to take him) to talk about his Pulitzer Prize-winning new book, Goldstein. It’s an autobiographical account of the Goldstein family, beginning with his grandmother Zelda’s (Amie Bermowitz) arrival from Russia in 1918 with $10 in her pocket.

Seven actors (most playing more than one character) perform the story, which several of its participants—deceased and living—claim is an insulting distortion of what happened. Louis’s beloved, now wheelchair-bound, Aunt Sherri (Megan McGinnis), for example, sings: “YOU WEREN'T THERE. YOU DON'T KNOW. WE WERE LOVING, WE WERE CARING. THIS BOOK TAKES US DOWN BLOW BY BLOW.” Not much actually comes of this truth v. fiction argument, however.
Amie Bermowitz, Megan McGinnis. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
We meet Zelda on board the ship that brought her here, having a shipboard romance with a man who promises to marry her when they’re settled in. But Zelda, treated like a servant by the sister-in-law she boards with on the Lower East Side, never hears from him again. She ends up marrying the Trotskyite Louie Rudolph (Jim Stanek), with whom she opens “Rudolph’s,” a dress shop in Elizabeth, NJ.

Louie’s last name is really Goldstein, not Rudolph, having been changed to hide his crime of military desertion. Eventually, he goes to prison for a year, while Zelda discovers her hidden strength as a saleswoman while improving the business in his absence.

Over the course of 90 minutes, births and deaths succeed one another. Zelda and Louie have two children, Nathan (Aaron Galligan Stierle) and Sherri. Sherri’s hopes of becoming a doctor are dashed by parental disapproval. She falls in love with the butcher’s son, Sammy Leftofsky (Owen), who joins the navy during World War II and dies on a ship commanded by Nathan. Sherri never does get married.
Megan McGinnis, Zal Owen. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Nathan becomes a shrink and marries Eleanor (Sarah Beth Pfeifer), who becomes the nagging Zelda’s pincushion. Nathan and Eleanor have two kids, Miriam (Julie Benko) and Louis (our narrator), whose homosexuality (seemingly indispensable in these narratives) creates a typical family crisis. In the big reveal, Louis learns the secret of just why Zelda never heard from the man she fell in love with all those years ago.

Naturally, stories like this, with their struggles, secrets, mistakes, tragedies, choices good and bad, are universal. Goldstein, while pleasantly entertaining, doesn’t add much to the genre. Its family is rather ordinary and its great romantic secret rings the bell of predictability.
Jim Stanek, Zal Owen, Sarah Beth Pfeifer, Megan McGinnis, Amie Bermowitz. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
It takes some time to become invested in the characters, whose situations and behavior border on the clichéd and whose humor is generally as flat as a matzo. While the lyrics in several songs are quite effective, too much of the music—accompanied by piano, clarinet, and flute—is generic; it could easily fit a show called Smith. In fact, there’s precious little here—apart from an occasional intonation, shoulder shrug, or “oy gevalt”—that highlights the material’s dormant Yiddishkeit.

Yet it can’t be denied that there’s a nostalgic sincerity to Goldstein that, ultimately, may affect you, particularly toward the end with its message of forgiveness for those who came before you, who were only trying to do their best, regardless of what you thought of them.

Alexander Woodward’s quite plain, bare-bones set, little more than a sparsely furnished wood-paneled room, serves for all scenes (which also sometimes use the central aisle). It’s given some life by Andrew W. Griffin’s lights, especially toward the end, but Maureen Freedman’s more-or-less period costumes add little of visual interest.
Megan McGinnis, Julie Benko, Amie Bermowitz, Zal Owen, Aaron Galligan-Stierle, Jim Stanek, Sarah Beth Pfeifer. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.
Each ensemble member sings quite well and their acting serves the material satisfactorily. Bermowitz’s Zelda has the right motherly touch, Stanek’s Louie conveys a man burdened by responsibility, Pfeiffer’s Eleanor is believably irritated by Zelda’s needling, and McGinnis’s Sherri subtly expresses her character’s various age differences. Brad Rouse’s direction treats the material with respectful affection, as does Sarah O’Gleby’s minimal choreography.  

This musical may not strike as rich a lode as one might hope for, but then again, all that glitters is not Goldstein.


Actors Temple Theatre
339 W. 47th St., NYC
Open run