Even for real theater buffs, the world of Yiddish theatre can be rather mysterious. The names of the genre’s pioneers — Stella Adler, Fyvush Finkel — may be familiar, but mostly from the roles they played subsequently in the mainstream theatre.
But like theatre itself, which has been referred to for decades as the Fabulous Invalid, the Yiddish theatre has proven a bit hardier than it may at first appear. References to Yiddish performance have popped up in “Waiting for Guffman” and “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” (albeit slightly mocking references in the former case). The Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre has earned a lot of press for its efforts in reestablishing a Yiddish presence in Manhattan. And now comes “The Komediant.” This extremely engaging documentary about Pesach’ke Burstein (1896-1986), a central figure in the history of Yiddish theatre, and his wife and twin children opens April 5 in New York.
Lillian Lux, who was 22 years younger than Burstein when they married, is still going strong and putting the word out about her husband and about Yiddish theatre in general. Daughter Susan left the world of show business as a young adult, and her ambivalent memories of her performing years give the film a welcome bit of conflict. And, after creating a sensation as a Yiddish performer, son Michael (now known as Mike Burstyn) straddles both worlds, performing in such Broadway shows as Barnum and Ain’t Broadway Grand while also performing some of his father’s acclaimed Yiddish productions.
Burstyn has been pleased to see how many people are having their eyes opened to some degree by “The Komediant,” which has appeared at dozens of Jewish film festivals over the last three years. “The most common reaction is, ‘We didn’t know,’” he says. “People are not only enjoying it but also learning something about the Yiddish theatre.”
As “The Komediant” shows, Yiddish theatre has small but enthusiastic groups of proponents all around the world, from Poland to Argentina to the United States. Burstyn says the only place where Yiddish theatre truly thrives today is in Israel, where he estimates that about 750,000 Israelis still consider Yiddish their native language. In fact, an emotional climax in the film comes when he and Lux star in a production of A Polish Wedding, one of his father’s most famous plays, in Israel on what would have been Pescah’ke’s 100th birthday. Interestingly, Yiddish was anything but welcome in Israel immediately after World War II. The Burstein family, which managed to abort a European tour and leave Poland within days of the Nazi invasion in 1939, were surprised to find when they returned that Yiddish had been classified as a “foreign language” in Israel. “Yiddish was the language of the diaspora for 1,000 years, and it was vigorously fought in Israel,” Burstyn says. “It was kind of like second-generation Jews who were ashamed and embarrassed by their parents speaking Yiddish.
Burstyn praises the efforts of groups like the Folksbiene in keeping Yiddish theatre alive, but he shares the concerns of many who bemoan the future of Yiddish. “Whenever anyone said Yiddish theatre was dying, my father would respond: ‘People have been saying this for 1,000 years, and it’s still not dead.’ But he was maybe a little optimistic, in my opinion. I think the Yiddish language may survive, and I hope it does, but maybe not as a language spoken on a daily basis.”
Which is not to say that Yiddish theatre — and the Burstein name — doesn’t spark a reaction among certain circles. To this day, Burstyn constantly runs into older women who gush over what a gorgeous and talented man Pesach’ke was. “You have to understand, my father was not just an actor. He was a matinee idol.” Unfortunately, most of the performance footage in “The Komediant” is taken from much later in Burstein’s life, and that dreamboat quality has faded somewhat. Still, his charisma and talent are evident in various stills, recordings and quick snippets of film from throughout his career.
Burstyn, who just finished working on a TV pilot called “Straight, No Chaser” with Bronson Pinchot, toured the country in 1998 and 1999 starring in the musical Jolson. The role is fitting: Pesach’ke Burstein and Al Jolson’s careers overlapped frequently. In fact, Burstein’s Broadway debut in 1924 was at the Nora Bayes Theatre, situated in the same building as the Al Jolson Theatre, and Burstein would often watch Jolson perform. Both were accomplished whistlers and used this skill in their routines.
“There were a lot of similarities between Jolson and my father, both physically and artistically,” Burstyn says. “Whenever Jolson had a hit, they would instantly translate it, and my father would go in and record it — sometimes with the same orchestra — in Yiddish.” Included in “The Komediant” is a Yiddish rendition of “Sonny Boy” that was recorded under just such circumstances.
“If you boil their appeal down to one word,” says Burstyn, “it’s ‘energy.’ Jolson and my father both exuded energy.” ***
The summer months tend to be lean when it comes to theatre-themed offerings. They also tend to be extremely flexible, with titles switching opening dates in response to all the other changing dates. I’ll point out the highlights a little closer to Memorial Day, but the spring actually has a fair number of tempting offerings.
First up is “The Komediant,” opening April 5 in New York and Los Angeles. The following week will see the limited-release opening of “Murderous Maids,” based on the true story of Christine and Lea Papin, two maids who killed their mistress and her daughter in France in 1933. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Jean Genet used this story as the springboard for The Maids in 1947. Both of these films will screen at New York’s Quad Cinema. The Quad also has “Quitting” (Sept. 13), a Chinese documentary about Jia Hongsheng, an emotionally unstable film and stage star.
April 19 will see two promising films open in limited release. Ben Kingsley, who I maintain was robbed of a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for “Sexy Beast,” returns to his gentler ways in “The Triumph of Love,” featuring Mira Sorvino and Fiona Shaw. Bernardo Bertolucci and a few other screenwriters adapted the Marivaux romance. And speaking of screenwriters, while we wait for Tom Stoppard’s trilogy of Russia plays to reach these shores, we can see the World War II spy drama “Enigma.” Dougray Scott stars with fellow Oscar-loser Kate Winslet.
The major spring title opens May 24. “The Importance of Being Earnest” features a glittery cast (Rupert Everett, Reese Witherspoon, Judi Dench) and a good pedigree: Director/screenwriter Oliver Parker proved deft at adapting Oscar Wilde in 1999 with “An Ideal Husband.” The preview doesn’t appear to hit the comedy on the hand, but I remain optimistic. Dance fans, meanwhile, should enjoy “Nijinsky: From the Diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky,” a documentary narrated by Derek Jacobi.
And New York’s always dependable Film Forum is devoting the next ten weeks to “The Great American Comedy.” Among the pertinent offerings are Mae West and Cary Grant in “She Done Him Wrong” (April 10), based on West’s Diamond Lil; the 1933 film of Kaufman and Hart’s “Once in a Lifetime” (June 4); John Barrymore and Carole Lombard in “Twentieth Century” (May 1), better known to theatre fans as the basis of On the Twentieth Century; and the all-star film of “The Women” (May 22-23), with Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell and Norma Shearer, among others. As if that isn’t enough, “Sweet Smell of Success” will return to Film Forum for a limited run starting April 5.
Cutting-Room Floor: Not much to say about the Oscars. I’m bummed that “In the Bedroom” didn’t win anything (losing to Akiva Goldsman’s mediocre script to “A Beautiful Mind” was the final straw), but very few of the awards were completely off base. The evening overall was fairly tedious and self-important, but at least good people won, all in all. ... Watch for Jennifer Dundas and Dylan Baker in supporting roles in the new action/drama “Changing Lanes” (April 12), starring Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson. And Eddie Izzard plays none other than Charlie Chaplin in “Cat’s Meow” (April 12), the first film in almost a decade by Peter Bogdanovich.
Your Thoughts: Which spring/early summer film holds the most interest for you? Why? Any thoughts on Yiddish theatre?
Eric Grode is New York bureau chief of Show Music magazine, assistant editor of The Sondheim Review and a theatre critic for Back Stage.