The Material World
nytheatre.com review by Ed Malin
July 6, 2012
Dan Fishback's The Material World is a funny look at why people want revolution, love, Kabbalah, and other things. This is the second play of a critically-acclaimed series (although it can be enjoyed on its own) and was commissioned by Dixon Place for its Hot Festival. The action centers on Gittel, a Russian Jewish girl living in the Bronx. Her 1921 self badly wants Communism to take root in America. Her parents left Russia just before the Revolution; her Mother is sad to have missed it while her Father thinks America is almost good enough. Her older sister, seduced by the riches she sees at a friend's house, wants to be a Broadway performer and make lots of money, This conflict is explored through song. And then, the weird things start happening.
Gittel talks to one of the boarders in the house, who, in 1921, sits in his room all day making subversive posts on Facebook about the 2012 regime change in Egypt. They sing about the different ways one can start a revolution. Then, Gittel explores her Jewish roots by visiting some Kabbalah enthusiasts. These are none other than "Britney" and "Madonna." They sing about a peaceful way to gain ultimate power via mysticism (cleverly referencing Marxism and the title song). The time jumps become clearer when a very old Gittel takes the stage. Today, her children are moving her into a nursing home. Still a straight talker, she advises that despite all the political upheavals of the 20th century, the future is just like the past. This idea is explored further when young Gittel and Madonna visit an uncle who once was a Kabbalah scholar. He is now in an insane asylum, and does his best to insult them in Yiddish. Will Gittel's Mama and Papa move back to Russia?
This is a well-written show with infectious tunes; the 1920s pop and Madonna pop aspects both work well. The band consists of Dane Terry on piano and Lior Hadar on guitar. The actors, whose roles are unfortunately not identified in the program, work very hard to make a dazzling and happy production. Thanks are also due to Director Stephen Brackett for blending so many performance styles, and to costume designer Deb O and choreographer Sam Pinkleton for creating some otherworldly moments. The stumbling block for me is the negativity which creeps in after the intermission. It is not entirely clear that there has been no progress in the 20th century, or that the elections in Egypt will lead to oppression. Actually, Gittel's parents mention that it is only the child labor laws in this country that keep their little girls from going to work; the playwright seems to be ignoring such progressive trends in order to make his point. Otherwise, this is a thought-provoking evening and I look forward to part three.