Jewish immigrant families in America in the early 1900s faced so many challenges in the new country that their experiences inspire many plays, and the New Worlds Theatre Project celebrates this rich history with their newest production, Welcome to America.
Originally titled Shmatez (Remnants), H. Leivick’s Yiddish play was groundbreaking and timely when it debuted in the 1920s. Now, Ellen Perecman’s adaptation, which is currently playing at the 45th Street Theatre, is a dated and stale look back instead of a gripping family drama because of set and pacing issues as well as unsuccessful non-traditional casting.
Set in New York City in the 1920s, the play focuses on the Maze family during a troubling time for the family as well as many poor Jewish workers. The characters are largely stock characters: strict and devout patriarch Mordechai (Donald Warfield), a rag sorter in a sweatshop; homemaker Rokhl-Leye (Alice Cannon); Annie (Jessica DiSalvo), a defiant daughter who recently married Mordechai’s boss’ son without his permission; Sadie (Claire Kennedy), another daughter who is poor and jealous of her sister; and finally, a misunderstood firecracker of a son, Harry (Joshua Odsess-Rubin). Mordechai feels marginalized in America and takes his frustrations out on his family by yelling at his wife and ignoring or arguing with his children, who are each assimilating in their own ways. Meanwhile, workers in Mordechai’s sweatshop are counting on him to use his newfound family connection to their advantage in a strike for better wages and conditions.
While we hear about the wedding celebration and impending workers’ strike, we never see either event because the entire play takes place around the Mazes’ dining room table, with Mordechai hunched and grumbling bitterly at the head. With this static set, the characters and action of the play need to be constantly captivating, but a repetitive format makes it difficult and ultimately weakens the play. Nearly every character comes to see Mordechai and convince him to return to Annie’s wedding celebration. The result is a slow parade, with each person arguing with Mordechai, getting frustrated, then leaving. These episodes should captivate the audience and build dramatic tension from one visitor to the next, resulting in a dramatic tidal force. However, Mordechai’s stationary placement on the static set coupled with the slow pacing of one visitor after another unfortunately creates only small swells that ebb away. Without building up to it, the play seems to awkwardly reach a revealing and exciting scene when Mordechai’s son Harry confronts him. However, as quickly as the audience’s attention is grabbed, the play abruptly ends, and what could have been a climactic explosive finale is more of a pop.
Additionally, non-traditional casting compounds with these issues. African-Americans portray Mordechai’s new son-in-law Morris Levi (Anthony Peeples), his father and Mordechai’s boss (Dathan B. Williams) and Elye (Alvin Keith), a coworker. I’m not sure if director Stephen Fried intentionally cast these three characters - the only characters not part of the Maze nuclear family - with African-Americans or if that was a coincidence, but it was risk nonetheless. While this casting shows how Mordechai is an outsider in comparison to his colleagues as well as how his children have assimilated into the new world, it also takes the focus away from Mordechai’s struggles and confuses the audience by adding a racial element that is not meant to be there.
At this point, Welcome to America is a dated period piece that lacks the freshness and urgency that H. Leivick’s original work, as a current commentary on society, might have had. Future productions might experiment with an additional setting or staging that covers more of the space, and a faster pace could help the play build toward that explosive final scene.
Photo credit: Louis Zweibel