Peanut butter and jelly, or maybe Lucy and Ethel: Some things are just meant to be together. The short stories of authors Grace Paley and Bernard Malamud are like that. They fit together smoothly, a tendency Traveling Jewish Theatre mines every couple of years, from The Jewbird and Goodbye and Good Luck and Windows and Mirrors to the current Family Alchemy. The current combination, Family Alchemy, is no different, with Paley's "Mother" and "The Story Hearer" comprising a brisk and touching first act and Malamud's longer "The Magic Barrel," about a rabbinical student who decides he needs help finding a bride, kicking in after intermission.
Many of the characters are stereotypically Jewish: the long-suffering mother of the first piece, the hyperanalytical narrator of the second, the shy yeshiva boy and well-meaning but shlubby marriage broker of the third. But the fact that these people are so predictable in no way lessens their charm, especially played by a cast anchored by company founders Naomi Newman and Corey Fischer and rounded out by Jeri Lynn Cohen and Max Gordon Moore.
Seeing Newman and Fischer work together is one of the great delights of Bay Area theater. Over 26 years they've grown up together and let us watch. There is a singular ease and warmth in that relationship which shines through every pair of characters they inhabit, from fathers and daughters to spouses or ex-spouses. They're also just funny people. In this collection their longest interaction is in "The Storyhearer," where Fischer plays a husband patiently following his wife's meandering tale of her trip to buy some "comestibles," a word Newman manages to make sexy. Similar in tone to "Wants," one of the Paley stories in the last batch, "The Storyhearer" features a nameless but quite politically engaged woman (Paley herself is known for her antiwar activism) who can't perform the simplest task without examining its whole context (eventually she falls out with the greengrocer over the politics of Chilean plums). This one, while it wanders all over the place, is bright with moments like the narrator's discussing female circumcision as the butcher bangs a knife down on a chicken and the arrival of a "famous fussy goormay," also played by Fischer.
Speaking of Fischer, he's got the moment that justifies the ticket. The bit where he eats the fish. Big man, little fish. I promise that you have never seen anything like it. That comes during "The Magic Barrel," set in the '40s, which turns out rather sneakily to be about salvation, although it looks more like a testimonial to speed dating. Besides Fischer's pescatophile shadkhan (marriage broker), this one has the highly physical Moore as a nervous, constricted rabbinical student. Clutching his shoulders in terror at the prospect of meeting and marrying an actual woman-person, making a desperate (and perfectly timed) face-plant onto the bed, awkwardly hugging the startled landlady -- Moore just gets better and better as the story progresses. He's matched by the tragically elegant Cohen, who works a lot of backstory into very few lines.
While as in most TJT shows there are moments that will resonate more with members of the tribe than those outside of it, the overall effect of Family Alchemy is charming and inclusive, a series of images of Jewish-American life in the last century paired with Dan Cantrell's lively, dark Eastern-European-flavored score and a nifty translucent set from Kate Boyd.
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