One-person shows have proliferated in New York at a remarkable rate, from the kind I could take my grandparents to—Golda’s Balcony, Primo, 700 Sundays—to Belfast Blues and Thom Pain downtown. Among other things, they are much cheaper to produce than, say, a kitchen-sink drama, which may be why, paging through the massive roster of this year’s New York Fringe Festival, I spotted three solo one-acts riffing on their creators’ Jewish identity.
In the best of these, the swift and assured Not Dead Yet, Aaron Samson recounts a trip to Moscow to find the family his grandfather Leo left behind. Along the way, he plays the host of Russian Jeopardy, a vodka-swilling soldier who despises America, and Leo, who tells in a thick v-for-w accent of his near-death encounters with dysentery and pogroms and his escape to the United States all before turning 28. The chameleon-like performance allows Samson to imagine himself as a man he only knows from memoirs. With little more than a gray hat and a world-weary posture, he seems to have found his grandfather’s voice and heart inside himself, and proved the past is not quite as irretrievable as he might have thought.
Karen Weinberg also takes the opportunity to channel a forebear in the admirably campy and mostly autobiographical Faker, a cabaret show about the rise of an actress named Hava Nagila. “You’re a Jew, say it loud. Stick your nose out proud,” sings Grandma. Instead, Hava decides to “take a hammer to my skull.” Before long, her nose returns to sing a duet, assuring Hava it will always be part of her. While Aaron Samson eschews easy parody, finding both humor and humanity in everyone he embodies, Weinberg betrays a subtle condescension in her impersonation of her apron-wearing grandmother.
Still it was Three Ring Circus: Israel, the Palestinians, and My Jewish Identity that had me squirming. Quick to point out his nose, “beady eyes,” and hunched shoulders, Daniel Thau-Eleff proceeds to divulge his “coming out of the anti-occupation closet,” with a few girlfriends along the way. There’s something solipsistic about reducing the Middle East to a quarter-life crisis.