The Diaspora Drama Group tries to revive Yiddish theater
The Marlon Brando moment comes midway through Carcass, when Mendel wonders how he wound up skinning horses for his daily bread. “I could have been a tailor!” Mendel cries to his white-haired father.
Peretz Hirshbein’s 1906 play, the premiere effort of the Diaspora Drama Group, rests on moments of frustrated ambition followed by violent rage; soon Mendel strangles his drunken dad. It feels a lot like The Beauty Queen of Leenane—the dark country house, the claustrophobic regionalism, a dysfunctional family, and a fair share of blood—and the dialogue occasionally nears the same acidity, if not quite the cleverness. Why then, if Carcass had all the makings of a Martin McDonagh play, was I so eager for it to end?
Diaspora Drama was founded in hopes of resuscitating the Yiddish theater tradition, performing gritty plays in English translation, skewing away from the nostalgic bent of the Folksbiene, last seen uptown producing the musical revue On Second Avenue. Yet for all Carcass‘ darkness, Diaspora gets lost in another kind of nostalgia, resurrecting the color and shape of Hirshbein’s world but not its texture. Their mainly realist take—the shadow-box set, the dreary, vaguely period clothes—left me wanting to stage an intervention. For a few short scenes, the production casts off its drab, dire tone when the country house walls open to reveal Mendel’s mother’s blindingly white hospital room and her nurse, played here by a black actress. The characters come alive as Shprintze, just cold enough, lightly reveals her disappointment in her son, like a moment out of Driving Miss Daisy.
The real battle to wage in reviving Yiddish theater is not against nostalgia but for relevance—and it won’t be won with a reverent, by-the-book production. Unless Hirshbein and other long-dead playwrights get the lively, inventive treatment their works deserve and a contemporary audience demands, I’m afraid they will be relegated to the library stacks.