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A CurtainUp Review
Joe and Betty

by Les Gutman
Some people have all the luck.
Joe and Betty -- Return Engagement
Les Gutman reviewed Murray Melnick's play last season and it returns -- same director and cast but different venue, with an official re-opening on December 15th 2002. The new production details below: Joe and Betty
GuyKirk Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St. 212/279-4200
12/08/02-1/12/03; opens 12/15/02. Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes including 1 intermission.
Mon, Tue, Thu - Sat at 8pm; Sat & Sun at 3pm -- $45.

John Diehl and Annabelle Gurwitch
J. Diehl and A. Gurwitch
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
On a number of occasions, I've championed the maxim "write what you know," and I suppose there's no better way to do that than by writing autobiography. So one might expect I'd be applauding Murray Mednick for writing this play, which calls up what must be quite painful memories from his childhood. And yet, despite the fact that he vividly if grimly limns the home life of the title characters (they are husband and wife, drawn from his own parents), what we get is disappointingly lacking in depth, seemingly a childs-eye view that resists the exploration of more substantial impressions that would have made it more fruitful and interesting.

Joe (John Diehl) and Betty (Annabelle Gurwitch) are a working-class Jewish couple, transplanted from Brooklyn to the Catskills so Joe can be closer to his mother. He is inadequate as a provider and as a father, squandering his earnings drinking with "the coloreds" and chasing underaged girls. She is out of her element in the country, mentally ill, prone to violence and ill-suited to child-rearing. It's no great surprise that one of their six children, Emile (spoken to but never seen onstage, and representing the playwright), is troubled and, after the death of his grandmother, a recluse.

There is little arc to the story; the marriage is a disaster and Betty spends her time unhappily: complaining about money, neglecting her kids, being jealous of others and pining for Brooklyn. Joe is emotionally and often physically absent. They are friends with a gentile couple (more accurately, Joe is), Stan (Tom McCleister) and Dot (Shawna Casey), who drop by to play cards and the like, and throw around some hints of anti-Semitism. The cast also includes a woman from the school, Hilda (Edith Fields), sent out of concern for the children's welfare; their Jewish landlady, Mollie (Sharron Shayne, the best performance in the lot), who may or may not be depriving them of heat; and Joe's younger brother, Irv (Drago Sumonja), who is far more successful as a car salesman. Precious little of dramaturgical value is gained from any of them.

Mednick has written some good material, especially for Betty, but fails to exploit it by having it take us anywhere. The problem is compounded by choppy direction that seems intent on treating the couple's performances more like a Vaudeville routine than a realistic drama, and by Ms. Gurwitch's portrayal of Betty, which registers more like a suburban Philadelphia housewife than any Brooklynite I've ever engaged. Background material suggests the play is supposed to be about Anti-Semitism and racism, but both are only addressed by their presentation, sans illumination. One can imagine this play revealing something meaningful about the effects of such flawed parents on the children, but that can't be achieved when our exposure to the children is only through the parents' description.

Joe and Betty arrives in New York with critical acclaim in tow from Los Angeles and, even more incredibly, a citation from the American Theatre Critics Association. For what, I can only wonder.

Mrs. Feuerstein

Joe and Betty
by Murray Melnick
Directed by Guy Zimmerman

with Annabelle Gurwitch, John Diehl, Shawna Casey, Tom McCleister, Edith Fields, Sharron Shayne and Drago Sumonja Set Design: Jeffrey Atherton
Costume Design: Bridget Phillips
Lighting Design: Rand Ryan
Original Music and Sound Design: Robert Oriol
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes with 1 intermission
Jose Quintero Theatre, 534 West 42nd Street (10/11 Avs)
Telephone (212) 244-7529
Opening June 2, 2002, closing June 16, 2002
WED - SAT @8, SUN @3; $15
Reviewed by Les Gutman based on 5/30/02 performance
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