by Shelley Molad · January 22, 2014
Indie Artists on New Plays #39: Shelley Molad looks at East Towards Home at Theater For the New City
The first thing that comes to mind when I reflect on Billy Yalowitz’s East Towards Home is the effect the show had on an elderly couple sitting next to me, whose hands remained tightly clasped through the entirety of the show. The couple nodded their heads and audibly whispered back and forth in acknowledgement as Yalowitz began narrating the history of New York’s Jewish left-wing community, as it sprung forth from the cooperative housing projects that were built in the 1920s and 30s not far from where we were sitting at Theater for the New City. As I glanced over to see the same couple swaying their knees to a Woodie Guthrie song being sung on stage, I couldn’t help but feel that I was experiencing a part of their history, and as I looked around the audience, I realized they were not the only ones humming and nodding. It was I, a New York transplant with Jewish roots, who felt a young stranger, despite the fact that I was listening to the local history of my people, a history whose alleged danger of obscurity was evident by my bewildered sense of ignorance. Luckily my imagination kicked in pretty quickly to fill in the gaps, as the cast, under David Schechter’s lively direction, recounted stories collected by Yalowitz, spanning three generations of Jewish left-wing culture in New York City, including stories from his own childhood. Schechter utilizes visual projections with animation, live music, song and dance to bring these stories to life. Though Yalowitz gives an understated performance as the narrator, his younger self is played by David Kremenitzer with energy and gusto, reminiscent of the character Eugene Morris Jerome in Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs. Eleanor Reissa gives a delightful performance as Sylvie, a character inspired by the writings of various members of the New Dance Group and personal stories from Yalowitz’s family members and community. Reissa transforms with ease from playing an older Sylvie, hunched over her shopping cart, advising the young Yalowitz, to a vivacious and impassioned dance teacher and choreographer with a lovely voice and incredible facility with language (her perfect Yiddish, though I couldn’t understand all of it, generated much laughter from the audience). Brian Gunter portrays Woody Guthrie and gives a subtle yet graceful performance, providing a nice contrast to Reissa and Kremenitzer, who always seem to be jumping, if not dancing, around the stage. As narrator, Yalowitz weaves in and out of his stories, playing some minor characters along the way, but he mainly sits back and watches the action unfold around him, as if he is daydreaming with us alongside him. Though the play is loaded with facts and information that sometimes flew right past me, the parts that were most memorable were Kremenitzer’s joyful depictions of summer camp, and the happenings amongst the socialist vacation communities in the Hudson Valley, including Sylvie’s repeated attempts to make an impact through dance, inviting anyone and everyone to join her, as long as they can walk all right. Because East Towards Home jumps back and forth between character perspectives, generations and anecdotes, I wasn’t always sure where and when to connect the dots. In the end, I appreciated learning about the history of New York’s Jewish Left Wing Community through personal accounts and couldn’t have been more touched to see its effect on those who were alive to have lived this history, as measured by those seated right beside me.