Jolly Good Fellows
nytheatre.com review by Jack Hanley
May 29, 2009
Before Broadway, and before vaudeville, New Yorkers would attend concert saloons to drink and be entertained by variety theatre that included skits depicting Irish and Jewish immigrants in disparaging stereotypes. Playwrights Steve Feffer and Tucker Rafferty tell us in their program note that Irish and Jewish actors often played the roles in these skits. Jolly Good Fellows takes us back in time to one of those concert saloons, circa 1889, and explores the lives of two fictional immigrant actors who play a series of extant skits Feffer came across in his research. (He notes that these skits are known today as "Jolly Good Fellows." Why they are now known by that title is never explained.)
We're first introduced to Michael Harrigan, an actor and Irish immigrant. He's been performing solo for two decades, but is told by his producer that his act is becoming wan and he should partner with another performer to develop some fresh material. Enter a young, fresh-faced actor hungry to practice his craft. He introduces himself as Frank Green, and though he claims he's not a Jew, he says he can play one thanks to his diligent observations of Jewish immigrants in the Lower East Side. Michael, who's something of an anti-Semite, is suspicious, but hires Frank. The two quickly develop a sketch invoking every offensive stereotype they can muster for the sake of laughter and applause. In the sketch Frank plays an over-the-top caricature of a greedy and cunning Jewish pawnbroker who swindles an emerald heirloom from a drunken, Irish man—played by Michael—who retaliates with fisticuffs and apish physicality.
The sketch within the play is performed in snippets between backstage scenes of the actors' tenuous relationship. Frank, as the program note reveals, is in fact a Jewish immigrant. But he well understands that to perform on stage he must conceal his religion and heritage. So he blithely forsakes his culture for the sake of an acting gig that mocks his very identity. But soon enough his conscience comes calling when a newspaper reviewer excoriates Frank's offensive portrayal of Jews and admonishes the many Jewish audience members for taking pleasure in the act. Frank had no idea there were Jews in attendance and he falls into a fit of despair and guilt.
Michael, who happens to be a drunk and, as Frank tells him, a good storyteller, claims he has no problem with his depiction of the Irish. His concern is holding on to his job. And when he discovers that his stage partner has lied about his ethnicity, he punches him. I suppose the playwrights are suggesting that because Michael has for so long portrayed all the malicious stereotypes of Irish Catholic immigrants he has consequently surrendered his own identity to those stereotypes; and Frank could end much like Michael if he continued in this scurrilous type of theatre.
Mark Liermann efficiently paces the show, but has difficulty defining and shaping the relationship between the two men. They begin this play as strangers and, it seemed to me, they end as strangers. Perhaps this is the intention, but the composition of the final scene suggests otherwise. Louis Sallan, playing Frank, and Randy Wolfe, playing Michael, are steady and thoughtful actors who each give a sense of depth and a personal history to their character. But their interpersonal play felt stagy and inauthentic.
The ending is half poignant and half bewildering. I get the green light cast on Michael (though the director and lighting designer could have, or should have, made a less obvious choice), but why he sings the generic "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" as the light fades is anyone's guess. Frank's ending tableau is simply beautiful: He holds a sword switch pointed towards his chest and recites in Yiddish several lines from Hamlet; it is a stirring divination of the birth of American Yiddish theatre.
Though I found the play not altogether satisfying, I appreciated the work and commend everyone involved for shedding some needed light on this oft forgotten era of American theatre.