Perhaps the authors of The English Lesson envisioned their play as the theatrical equivalent of The Joys of Yiddish-that is, an affectionate paean to the language of, presumably, their ancestors (the playwrights' facetious program bio doesn't say anything real about them). Instead they produced the theatrical equivalent of Yiddish for Dummies: all the basics, cobbled together in a work that only a neophyte to Jewish culture might gain anything from. Theatergoers who actually pay attention to such details as character development and historical verisimilitude will find that the whole megillah is much mishegoss about nothing.
The English Lesson takes place in 1959, when Jack Zuckerman (Travis Taylor) from Borough Park, Brooklyn, gets engaged to a woman from a well-to-do, assimilated family. To avoid embarrassing herself at their wedding, Jack's mother, Rachel, wants to learn English. His father, Pincus, objects and later accuses Rachel of fooling around with her English teacher. That Pincus would ever suspect such a thing about his modest, loyal wife is utterly absurd, more so since he knows Rachel is eyeing the teacher as a prospective match for their daughter.
The English Lesson is full of such improbabilities, starting with Jack and his sister, Blima (Amy K. Browne), being portrayed by actors who look too gentile, act too contemporary, are opposite physical types and strictly go through the motions in their performances. Granted, the characters are not developed beyond "daughter" and "son"; as with the rest of the script, the authors neglected to give them much substance or logic.
A typical fight in The English Lesson goes like this: [adamantly] "No, I won't"/ "Yes, you should"/ [immediately] "OK, that's a good idea." One example comes in the second act, when minutes after dismissing the idea of sewing his own ripped pants, Jack drops everything and implores his father (a tailor) to teach him to sew. In this and other scenes, the playwrights were probably trying to create poignant moments of bonding between generations, but they didn't bother also creating realistic scenarios that make sense.
Among other questions raised by the careless writing and directing: Was there even such a thing as "marriage counseling" and "family therapy" back then? How does a working-class girl like Blima plan to pay for her summer vacation in Europe (also anachronistic)? And why was such an unflattering costume selected as the dress Rachel wears to her son's wedding?
The audience is asked to use their imagination, because the characters are supposed to be speaking Yiddish even though the play is in English. This is explained by Stephan Hart, who serves as a Greek chorus; however, Hart went up on his lines early in the performance, thereby defeating his purpose. Hart also plays the waiter in a neighborhood restaurant, and his mini-monologues about his spats with the restaurant owner-delivered in Jesse Jackson-like rhymes-are unnecessary.
There was one good thing about The English Lesson: the
spirited performances by Arthur Kirson and Eve Sorel
as the parents. They spoke Yiddish mellifluously, and they imbued
their characters with personality instead of just reciting their
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Copyright 2000 Adrienne Onofri