Tuesday, June 29, 2021


John V. Shea, Tovah Feldshuh. (Photo: Thomas Victor.)
YENTL, THE YESHIVAH BOY [Comedy-Drama/Education/Jews/Religion/Romance/Period] A: Isaac Bashevis Singer and Leah Napolin; SC: a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer; D: Robert Kalfin; S: Karl Eigsti; C: Carrie F. Robbins; L: William Mintzer; M: Mel Marvin; CH: Patricia Birch; P: Chelsea Theatre, Brooklyn Academy of Music (OB); 12/17/74-1/26/75 (48); P: Cheryl Crawford, Moe Septee, and the Chelsea Theatre Center with Mrs. Victor H. Potamkin; T: Eugene O’Neill Theatre; 10/23/75-5/2/76 (224): total: 262

Center: Tovah Feldshuh. (Photo: Laura Pettibone.)

Isaac Bashevis Singer was already an elderly man, widely recognized for his Yiddish-language short stories, when he turned to playwriting. Yentl, his third play (adapted with Leah Napolin from one of his stories), was his first dramatic success, and remains a popular work, partly because of the movie version starring Barbra Streisand in the title role; on stage, the character proved a career breakthrough for Tovah Feldshuh. The play received strong enough notices in its Off-Broadway showing at Brooklyn’s Chelsea Theatre Center that, 10 months after it closed, it received a commercial Broadway run at the O’Neill, albeit with one major ans several minor cast changes.
Leland Moss, Bernie Passeltiner, Tovah Feldshuh. (Photo: Laura W. Pettibone.)

Yentl is a Jewish girl living in a Polish shtetl in 1873 with her widowed father (Bernie Passeltiner). She greatly hungers for the traditional education that Judaic law restricts to men (as it still does in ultra-orthodox communities). Her father secretly teaches her from the Torah and Talmud himself. When he dies she resolves to attend the forbidden yeshivah by dressing as a boy named Anshel. She develops a very close friendship with another student, the handsome Avigdor (John W. Shea), and soon finds herself betrothed to Avigdor’s former fiancĂ©e Hadass (Neva Small, Chelsea; Lynn Ann Leveridge, O’Neill), whom she ends up marrying. Eventually, Yentl reveals her deception, Avigdor (whom she still loves) marries Hadass, and the fruit of their union is named Yentl.

The ramblingly structured play is far from perfect, being highly episodic, containing some awkwardly phrased dialogue, and an excessively anecdotal, literary style. It also bears the weight of an intriguing folk tale that, for some, simply asked too much suspension of disbelief. “Not a word of this strikes me as playable on a stage,” wrote Brendan Gill.

Lynn Ann Leveridge, John V. Shea. (Photo: Laura Pettibone.)

Nevertheless, the gorgeously designed production, making excellent use of a revolve and an artless, village style using minimal props and sets, was brimful of the period feeling emanating from the world of 19th-century peasant life. What Gill called Robert Kalfin’s “immaculate” direction made ample use of orthodox rituals. The characters were ably etched by the well-cast ensemble, and the thematic implications were intriguing, albeit anathema to potential audiences from the contemporary descendants of the community it depicts.

John Simon’s opinion was fairly typical. “Yentl is all theatre and no play.” He called the production “a whirring, whizzing marvel,” and none disputed the assertion. Singer’s views on traditional Jewish attitudes were provocative in a decade rent by feminist activity. The play’s sexual ambivalences were likewise much discussed.

The Broadway staging shaved nearly an hour off the Brooklyn version, tightening the focus on the central love triangle, but not eradicating the essential problem of the play’s non-dramatic personality. A major cause for celebration, as noted, was the presence of Tovah Feldshuh, whose characterization of Yentl caused T.E. Kalem to hail her as “an actress of imponderable scope and stature. . . . Tovah Feldshuh has the delicacy of a Tanagra figurine. She is kinetic in presence, graceful in gesture and capable of igniting, as well as displaying, passion.”

John V. Shea was also highly approved, Howard Kissel commenting on his “remarkably graceful, affecting performance.” Others in the large cast included Leland Moss, Hy Anzell, Robin Bartlett (O'Neill Theatre), and Blanche Dee.

Feldshuh won an OBIE, a Drama Desk Award, and an Outer Critics Circle Award, but the Tonys ignored her. She would, of course, have been up that season against Ellen Burstyn, Maggie Smith, Diana Rigg, Elizabeth Ashley, and Liv Ullman, not a one of them small potato latkes.

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: Yerma.