Photo: Hunter Canning

Photo: Hunter Canning

Could this production of Peretz Hirshbein’s translated play On the Other Side of the River (Oyf Yener Zayt Taykh) be the heritage of the legendary Boris Thomashefsky? Is this really an authentic revival of the esteemed theater that spawned the brilliant Paul Muni? I had read and heard so much about the Yiddish Theater’s early-1900s heyday in New York.

Called the Jewish Rialto, the Yiddish Theater District stretched from 14th Street to Houston Street on Second Avenue and over to Avenue B. History tells that its productions rivaled those on Broadway. I was looking forward to seeing a glimpse of this illustrious theater, knowing well that one can never truly go back.  One can, however, create a just homage to a classic art form.  But this production of New Worlds Theatre Project left me scratching my head, shifting in my seat, and stifling a giggle or two.

The play begins with old blind man Menashe (David Greenspan) and his granddaughter Mir’l (Jane Cortney) caught up in a raging storm by an overflowing river that threatens to wash their cabin away. Mir’l’s Zeyde (grandfather) has raised her alone since her parents drowned in a previous storm that also took the grandfather’s sight. Menashe ultimately perishes, a Stranger (David Arkema) insists on saving Mir’l, though she wishes to die with her beloved Zeyde. Eventually, her Bobe (grandmother) Yakhne (Christine Siracusa) returns from the village and tries to help her. But Mir’l throws herself into the river to seek the golden palaces studded with rubies that the Stranger told her are to be found on the other side of the river. That’s it, the plot.

From my cursory research, Peretz Hirshbein’s plays “focused more on mood and atmosphere than plot in their evocation of feelings and states of consciousness” (The Jewish Week). Inspired by the Symbolist plays of Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck, Hirshbein was dubbed “the Yiddish Maeterlinck”. On the Other Side of the River was first produced in Odessa in 1908 and was his first Yiddish drama. There is tremendous redundancy. A modern day story editor would have slashed three quarters of the play. The characters are steeped in faith and their relationship with God. For non-believers, call it superstition. Mir’l wears an amulet to protect her from the tragic fate that befell her family. All that said, I expected to see a dated work.

But what we get is more bizarre. David Greenspan as the old blind man speaks in a one-note, non-stop, breathless recitation, devoid of any natural speech or real feeling. He looks and sounds as if he is either possessed or schizophrenic (think crazy man on the street). Mr. Greenspan is an Obie winning actor. How can an acclaimed actor go so wrong? Did director Shannon Sindelar push him in this direction? Is this stylistic choice supposed to be prayer or lamentation? Most Yiddish plays were written at the dawn of cinema and before television. But their golden age coincided with Stanislavski’s work. Were they over-acted melodramas? (The rest of the cast is a notch less hysterical)

Whatever led actor and director to this style, it doesn’t work for the contemporary ear. I couldn’t listen to and hear the words Menashe speaks. When he freezes to death and lies on the stage floor, I thought, I hope he doesn’t wake up. But then I remembered we know only one Jew who was resurrected.
On the Other Side of the River – Written by Peretz Hirshbein with a translation by Ellen Perecman; directed by Shannon Sindelar.

WITH: David Greenspan (Menashe), Jane Cortney (Mir’l), David Arkema (The Stranger) and Christine Siracusa (Yakhne).
Sets by Patrick Rizzotti; lighting by Nick Solyom; costumes by M. Meriwether Snipes; composer and sound by Erik T. Lawson; video design by Bart Cortright; production stage manager, Corinn Moreno; executive producer, Ellen Perecman; assistant stage manager, Brent Schlosshauer; technical director, David Kaplan; assistant lighting designer, Michael Cole; press representation, Don Summa, Richard Kornberg & Associates. Presented by New Worlds Theatre Project, Ellen Perecman, founder & artistic director. At HERE, 145 Sixth Avenue, 1 block south of Spring; tickets are $18 at Ovationtix or or 212 352-3101. Through Dec. 21. There will be no performance on Saturday, December 6, and Monday, December 8. There will be a benefit performance on Saturday, December 6 at 6 PM, followed by a wine and cheese reception; tickets for the benefit performance are $50. Running time: 60 minutes.