Tuesday, May 11, 2021


Michael Tolan, Lou Jacobi. (Photos: Henry Grossman.)
UNLIKELY HEROES: 3 PHILIP ROTH STORIES [Comedy-Drama/Jewish] A/D: Larry Arrick; SC: three Philip Roth short stories; S: Robert U. Taylor; C: Frank Thompson; L: Roger Morgan; P: Robert L. Livingston; T: Plymouth Theatre; 10/26/71-11/13/71 (23)

“Defender of the Faith” [Military]; “Epstein” [Family/Illness]; “Eli, the Fanatic” [Religion]

Anna Berger, Dori Brenner, Lou Jacobi.

Director-adaptor Larry Arrick, a strong proponent of the Story Theatre techniques of Paul Sills, used them to turn three 1950s Philip Roth short stories into one-act plays. The method allows the non-dialogue portions of the original to be presented as straightforward narrative by the actors, who sometimes refer to the behavior of their characters in the third person.

Rose Arrick, Lou Jacobi.

Many thought his approach intrusive and only occasionally workable for material that had the substance for what Walter Kerr called “full-bodied drama.” These one-acts failed to thoroughly embody the originals in theatrical terms, and remained, on the whole, too literary in conception. This was the chief objection to a production that, while it pleased several influential reviewers, failed to draw audiences and closed in three weeks.

Lou Jacobi, Alvin Kupperman.

“Defender of the Faith” tells of a conniving young Jewish soldier (Jon Korkes) in an Army training camp who uses his Jewishness to pry special treatment from his good-natured Jewish sergeant (David Ackroyd). After a while, the sergeant catches on to the soldier’s conman craftiness and insincerity.

“Epstein,” practically a monologue, concerns an aging Jewish man, a paper bag manufacturer (Lou Jacobi), bothered by domestic problems. Essentially virtuous, he lets himself have an extramarital fling, develops a crotch rash, is thought by his shocked family to have venereal disease, and ultimately succumbs to a heart attack from all the excitement.

“Eli, the Fanatic,” the most substantial piece, recounts the tale of an encounter between a successful young Jewish lawyer (Michael Tolan), who has lost touch with his Judaic roots, and Mr. Tsuref (Lou Jacobi), the head of a yeshiva for immigrant children that has opened in the largely Protestant suburb where the lawyer lives with other assimilated Jewish families. The local Jews have been embarrassed by a bearded, kaftan-garbed Jew (David Ackroyd) who has been hired by the school to do odd jobs. They have asked Eli to convince the schoolmaster to either move his school or get the bearded man to change his mode of dress. In the end, after discussing the matter with Mr. Tzuref, and getting the bearded man to wear Eli’s own suit, the guilt-ridden Eli himself dons the man’s religious apparel, beats his chest in lamentation, and acknowledges his ancestral faith.

Clive Barnes loved the “authenticity” of Roth’s treatments, the “often very funny” material, and the evening’s “oddity, charm, . . . literate wit and . . . sense of style, place and period.” These were “beautiful stories,” thought Julius Novick, that tended to lose their punch on stage, “but at the same time . . . become more vivid, more intense, and funnier.” However, he laughed too infrequently to praise Jones’s “not overly abundant” use of wit.

In his comments, Harold Clurman described the sorry state of Broadway at the time, citing how difficult it was to break a profit when it cost upward of $75,000 to produce a straight play (this was 1971, remember), $300,000 to do a musical, tickets cost $8 to $15 plus, and unemployment for actors sky-high. (As someone once said, the more things change, the more they remain the same.) He then noted how the unnamed Times critic (Clive Barnes) was prone to try helping the situation by overhyping shows he reviewed. “Wherever there is the least trace of merit, the slightest possibility of praise, he takes pains to emphasize it.” Finally, before he gets to his own review of Unlikely Heroes, he notes that one major symptom of exhaustion revealing Broadway’s desperation in seeking remedies for the slump in profitable productions is how, as in the present case, “much that is now offered is not original theatre material but adaptations and dramatizations.”

Clurman declares that it should not be necessary to extol as masterpieces plays that are “pleasant” but not “truly valuable.” “That such a notice is required to rouse people to see a play is itself evidence of a morbid condition.” In his own modestly positive review, he declares, “Unlikely Heroes is a nice evening in the theatre,”  “amusing, well written and intelligent, . . . well acted and suitably staged.” Of “Eli, the Fanatic,” which earned his warmest remarks, he concludes: “It is a fine concept; the story as story is a brilliant allegory. Though its meaning still remains inescapable, reaching beyond its specific ethnic framework, it becomes rather too concrete, and therefore not altogether credible and less poignant than it should be, when it is translated in realistic terms to the stage.”

Cast members included Tom Rosqui, Josh Mostel, Alvin Kupperman, George Bartenieff, Dori Brenner, Anna Berger, Rose Arrick, Lee Wallace, and others.

Do you enjoy Theatre’s Leiter Side? As you may know, since New York’s theatres were forced into hibernation by Covid-19, this blog has provided daily posts on the hundreds of shows that opened in the city, Off and on Broadway, between 1970 and 1975. These have been drawn from an unpublished manuscript that would have been part of my multivolume Encyclopedia of the New York Stage series, which covers every show, of every type, from 1920 through 1950. Unfortunately, the publisher, Greenwood Press, decided it was too expensive to continue the project beyond 1950.

Before I began offering these 1970-1975 entries, however, Theatre’s Leiter Side posted over 1,600 of my actual reviews for shows from 2012 through 2020. The first two years of that experience were published in separate volumes for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 (the latter split into two volumes). The 2012-2013 edition also includes a memoir in which I describe how, when I was 72, I used the opportunity of suddenly being granted free access to every New York show to begin writing reviews of everything I saw. Interested readers can find these collections on Amazon.com by clicking here.

Next up: Walk Together, Children