By Tulis McCall
The title of the most recent production by Primary Stages, A Walk With Mr. Heifetz is misleading, because it leads a person to thaink that this play may be, like A Walk In The Woods by Lee Blessing an event of some magnitude. It is not. It is a seminar on the history of Israel that manages to be one-sided and absent of fireworks of any sort.
We begin in 1926 when Israel is still an idea. Yehuda Sharett (Yuval Boim), an immigrant from the Ukraine who came to Israel when he was 5 years old, is showing off his adopted homeland to Jascha Heifetz (Adam Green). Heifetz has just given a concert in a stone quarry because there are no concert halls in existence yet. Heifetz was advised to take a walk with “Maestro” Sharett, or else he would never hear the end of it. Although only in his 20’s Sharett had a reputation for a being relentless visionary. He rehearsed his choir late at night so the members would be free to work the land during the day. He rants and raves. Slowly his entire history and the corresponding history of Israel comes tumbling out.
There are extremists. But we fight them! We smoke them out and we fight. We will not let wickedness prevail in this land. Not from Arabs, not from Europeans, not from fellow Jews.
About 15 minutes in Heifetz asks what we are all thinking: Why are we here? Sharett says it is to discuss music, and then proceeds to expound on the reason why the Jewish Ningun (a song from the soul without words) is the best music in the world. Heifetz is not buying it. Soon they are into a debate about what makes music worthy. Sharett thinks Heifetz is a dilettante. Heifetz thinks Sharett is uneducated. Eventually they agree that for Sharett to serve his country he must leave it and become a student. He must go to Berlin. Oops.
In Act Two, 20 years later, we meet Yehuda’s brother Moshe Sharett (Erik Lochtefeld) – the third most famous man in Israel. (This Sharett has a clipped British accent compared to his brother’s unidentifiable – one supposes Hebrew? – accent.) Moshe is second, in his own opinion, to the right-wing Chaim Weizman or the left-wing David Ben Gurion. The former wants to appease the British and the latter wants to toss them out. (Both would become leaders of the new nation of Israel.) Soon we are off on a travelogue of events since last we met. Heifetz was attacked for playing Strauss in that quarry years ago. Yehuda’s family died in a car crash. He has been a recluse for 5 years, only coming out to lead his choir. Moshe has been on the public front negotiating and battling over details for the country they can see coming. We hear the history of their national anthem.
And once again we move into the debate over what, if anything, music can do to lift the spirit and affect the world. Moshe tells Yehuda ( as if Yehuda didn’t know) that at Theresienstadt camp during the war, the Jews were allowed to make art, even though they knew they would die. And make it they did. Viktor Ullmann wrote for the violin, and we hear his final sonata (beautifully played Mariella Haubs who haunts the entire play.) Moshe imploring arguments finally bring Yehuda around. He agrees to join the human race, beginning with Moshe’s daughter to whom he will give lessons.
What the plot was intended to be here – couldn’t say. This is a narrative where one thing follows another. Like life. But stories are not life – they are a construct. Ambiguity, conflict, needs, choices. This is a play chock-a-block full with history and anecdotes of the beginning of Israel. But plot is nowhere to be found.
According to James Inverne, the settlers were of the highest intention. They “turned swampland into fields of plants” that gave fruit. There is no mention of any people who lived in Palestine before it became Israel. You know, the people on the other side of the conflict that has lasted for decades. There is only mention in passing of those who mistreated the Jews over centuries.
The arguments presented here are worthy of a debate team – except there is no opposing view. Ergo there is no drama. The only conflicts are the internal ones and they are not often compelling.
Mr. Inverne’s bio in the program lists him to be a critic, an observer and an editor. These skills are abundantly evident here. His storytelling skills are not, and it is surprising that no one got this across to him. The actors do the very best they can, but neither their work, nor the beautiful music, nor Andrea Leynse’s direction are enough to right this ship. I believe Inverne intended this play to be a story that captured the passion of a people prepared to sacrifice anything to have a home. Instead he ended up with a play that has all the intrigue of a warm bowl of milk. A missed opportunity.
A WALK WITH MR. HEIFETZ is written by James Inverne and directed by Andrew Leynse.
WITH Yuval Boim, Adam Green, Mariella Haubs (violin), and Erik Lochtetfeld
Set by Winston Chin, Lights by John Froelich, Costumes by Jan Caprio
Through march 4th at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Tickets.