Saturday, August 26, 2017

Applause! Applause! Review of Larry Rinkel's A Kreutzer Sonata at The Secret Theatre by Dr. Philip Ernest Schoenberg

This review of Larry Rinkel's A Kreutzer Sonata at The Secret Theatre was written by Dr. Philip Ernest Schoenberg and published in Volume X, Issue 7 (2017) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

A Kreutzer Sonata
Written by Larry Rinkel
Directed by Christopher Erlendson
Dramaturg by Devorah Merkin
Produced by Hindi Kornbluth & Leah Felner
The Secret Theatre
44-02 23rd Street
Long Island City, Queens 11101
Reviewed 8/24/17

To paraphrase Israel Zangwill's heroic playwright in The Melting Pot, A Kreutzer Sonata is "a mediocre play performed well by the actors." David Lindenbaum recounts his past year experience of being a freshman at a secular university away from his sheltered Orthodox Jewish home. He finds himself attracted to a gentile girl, majors in music and deals with the divorce of his parents. 

The actors were all very professional and believable in their respective roles. Timothy Oriani is the conflicted Orthodox Jewish freshman caught between the secular and Jewish worlds during his first year away from home. He looks every bit the virginal freshman and exudes youthful charm. Joe Rubino is excellent as his emotionally distant father, Avram Lindenbaum, who is quite physically and emotionally distant from his son - the stereotypical absentee patriarch of the family. Lauren Snyder was David's cold, dogmatic mother, Rebekah Lindenbaum, the exact opposite of a loving "Yiddisher mama." She also played Carolyn, her husband's new love interest and potential life partner, so convincingly that I thought another actress was portraying the role. Chelsea Davis was the "talented violinist" who was Elena Guerriero, David's duet partner. Elena thought her being "pretty" was "a fact" but I did not really see Chelsea Davis, who played an aggressive, snarky, and outspoken young woman, as being the kind of woman who could "turn on" David and his gentile roommate Terry Michaels. In addition, she was "far too long in the tooth" to play a 19-year old Sophomore. Perhaps someone else should have been cast in the role. David and Elena exhibited no romantic chemistry. Jack Turell was successful in playing David's well-intentioned Lutheran/Atheist roommate. Amanda Boekelheide was his strict music teacher, who turned out having ethical standards she would readily compromise if the bribe was large enough. Christopher Erlendson did a fine job directing. As for the costuming, I did feel there could have been some more changes of clothes to better suit some of the scenes.

A play like any other story is supposed to be a journey of self-discovery and growth. I really didn't see this taking place with the characters in this play. I am not convinced David Lindenbaum was changed by his experiences. My personal experience as an American and a Jew is that people, whatever their religious background and whatever part of the country they are from, seek to be accommodating to their fellow believers and non-believers. Although we privately think we are God's Chosen People and have the exclusive key to heaven because of our religious beliefs, we generally find it to be good manners to get along with our non-Jewish neighbors and fellow citizens. I was personally taught there was no advantage to being Jewish but that one should be a good moral example to others. I found Terry Michaels' negative reaction to his roommate's "religious observances" to be a straw man that failed to advance the plot, especially when the main reason he gave for keeping David as a roommate was that he kept himself clean. 

There were three incidents I felt distracted from the story instead of enhancing it. One was the rape of David Lindenbaum by Elena Guerriero. Although David narrates he has developed romantic/sexual feelings for her, I don't see this convincingly demonstrated by either of the two characters. Terry Michaels, his roommate, acts as a drunken lout and galoot during a key duet performance by Elena Guerriero and David Lindenbaum. Yes, I can believe Terry is capable of being a drunken lout but not during his roommate's recital. In real life, he would have been suspended or expelled from the college and his roommate would not have been so accommodating and forgiving. Then Elena Guerriero goes bonkers that David Lindenbaum is circumcised? This is a most surprising reaction given her prolific sexual experiences and the fact that male circumcision is a commonly performed operation in the United States. More than a million American babies have their foreskins removed every year. In 2011, 79% of all American male babies were circumcised. 

I don't have any issues with the basic plot: the conflict between the religious and secular realm, the people of two different faiths "falling in love," or the estrangement between child and parent. This has been the plot of many a fine drama or play. The problem is the failure to advance the plot in a systematic series of actions. Instead, we have periods of exposition about Orthodox Judaism which slows down the play. Instead of being shown, we get didactics. I can take Judaism 101 at a college at any time. I felt that some of Professor Tomansky's lines could have been better written. She mentions Felix Mendelssohn, the music composer, who was the grandson of German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn but in light of Felix having become a Christian, I have no idea what point she was making.

We are introduced to some of the religious practices and beliefs of Modern Orthodox Judaism without being given a reason why they believe or practice in that manner. Why do Jews keep kosher? Why do Jews observe Shabbes? These mysteries are not explained to us. We need action, not exposition; dramatics, not didactics.

Although I have been hard on Larry Rinkel, the playwright, he does show great promise. There were elements of greatness at times within the play. There were even some witty lines and actions that were deservedly rewarded by audience laughter. Thanks to the able use of these lines by the actors, the show was rescued from failure. Here and there the language came to life and the actors directly interacted with audience members dropping beer on many of them. 

The most scintillating parts of the play were the monologues of the father, which formed a subplot by itself. The most moving one was when he explained his loss of faith but continued to practice the rituals of Orthodox Judaism, which were meaningless to him but kept his family happy. That felt authentic and made for good theater. Almost as compelling was the scene between father and son when they get together for a meal. The son challenges the father regarding his gentile girlfriend. His father then reveals the empty shell his marriage has been as well as his decision to leave the faith. 

In the end, we do care about David and the rest of his life. Larry Rinkel does have a future as a playwright and I look forward to the growth of his writing and its performance on the stage. You can catch A Kreutzer Sonata as part of The Secret Theatre's UNFringed 2017 Festival. Tickets cost $18.00 and can be purchased at For more information, call 718-392-0722. 

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