I debated with myself about covering the world premiere of the musical A Letter to Harvey Milk at the Acorn Theatre (off-Broadway, on 42nd between Ninth and 10th Avenues) through June 30. No one likes to pan a thoughtful production with its heart in the right place. But the show’s flaws didn’t just make me sad; they made me angry.
The abridged spoiler-free version is this: A Letter to Harvey Milk is super-Jewish and super-schtick-y, with some truly wonderful performances; most critics who are not me liked it. You could maybe take your mom or bubbe for Mother’s Day and have an intense discussion afterward about why this show could be so much better, and dammit, now I’ve given myself agita all over again.
Set in San Francisco in 1986, A Letter to Harvey Milk centers on the evolving friendship between Harry (played by Adam Heller), a retired kosher butcher, and Barbara (Julia Knitel), his eager young writing teacher at the JCC. Harry’s wife, Frannie (Cheryl Stern), is freaked out by her husband spending time with this attractive 20-something woman (“Don’t tell her nothing you haven’t told me!” she sings repeatedly), but Frannie ought to chill out because she’s a ghost and Barbara is a lesbian.
Barbara gives Harry an assignment: Write a thank-you note to someone from your past. Instead of choosing Frannie (who feels, after all, as real as day to Harry–offering advice, belting show tunes, and doing Borscht Belt schtick), he chooses his late friend Harvey Milk. Harvey’s hardware store was near Harry’s kosher butcher shop in the Castro. Harvey’s family were Long Island landsmen of Harry’s; they share a sense of humor. Harry worries about Harvey’s health and safety and keeps a jarful of jelly beans, Harvey’s favorite treat, on the butcher-shop counter.
Though Harry pooh-poohs his own writing talents, he’s good. Indeed, he brings bold, brash, hilarious Harvey to metaphorical life, in the person of actor Michael Bartoli, who does an uncanny impersonation. Barbara tells him she wants to try to get his lovely, Yiddishkeit-filled letter published. She tells Harry that Harvey Milk’s pride and openness emboldened her to come out to her uptight, WASP-y-Connecticut Jewish family. (And in telling this to Harry, of course, she’s also coming out to him.)
Barbara and Harry become friendly. He’s estranged from his own daughter; she’s been rejected by her family. Her parents are as uncomfortable with her interest in Judaism (her father is so self-loathing, he wore sunglasses on a trip to Katz’s Deli so no one would recognize him) as with her gayness. He’s happy to teach her Yiddish and introduce her to a proper Jewish deli. But when he learns she wants to pitch his essay to a gay magazine and sees her wearing a pink-triangle t-shirt, he’s furious. It’s OK to be gay, but not to flaunt it. Gradually we learn what’s behind his rage and terror about Barbara living out loud and proud, and it’s a lot bigger than mere grief over Harvey’s murder by Dan White eight years earlier.
The show’s songs are cute if unmemorable, with a lot of clichéd lyrics (“if enough of us hold hands, no one can hold a gun”). Stern, who not only plays Frannie but is also one of the book’s four writers, has a memorable boffo number criticizing Barbara’s schlumpy appearance, rhyming “shondeh” with “squander,” “go blonder,” and “Rwanda.” Yes, I laughed … but I also found the character to be a cringe-inducing, ungapatchka cliché, full of endless “fehs” and cartoonish “God forbids.” A big song and dance scene about Jewish humor, set in the deli, is so unfunny I found myself hiding behind my program, blushing with second-hand mortification. On the upside, the set and staging are effective for such a small space; the tiny orchestra acquits itself well; and most important of all, Adam Heller (while too young for the part of Harry) gives a subtle, smart, charismatic performance, and Julia Knitel had me spellbound with her gorgeous, clear voice and sweet sincerity.
And here lie the spoilers:
They had to bring in the Holocaust! Harry’s homophobia, it turns out, is triggered by something he’s never told anyone: He had a gay lover, Yussl, during the war, when he was a young man in a concentration camp—just for comfort, you understand—and Yussl was murdered by the Nazis in front of him, without ever confessing Harry’s identity. Suddenly, a character we just saw play a singing and dancing waiter is wearing a swastika armband, and we’re confronted with the staging of Harvey getting shot, too, and wait, what happened to the cute little show about intergenerational friendship, writing as a cure for loneliness, and jelly beans? The juxtaposition between the charming little comedy and the homophobic murdering is whiplash-inducing. And bringing in the Holocaust feels like a trivializing cheap shot, a lazy way to trigger meaning and import.
I found myself seeking out the show’s source material, a short story with the same title by Lesléa Newman, author of the classic Heather Has Two Mommies and many other books for children and adults. And sure enough, it’s nowhere near this schmaltzy and offensive. This Harry isn’t offended by Barbara’s refusal to be closeted; he’s angered only by her wearing a pink triangle … which to him is an emblem of Nazi hatred rather than a symbol of pride, the contemporary ACT UP act of queer reclamation it is for Barbara. And he has no shameful gay experience in his own past; instead, the story happened to a friend of his, who confesses to Harry in his old age; Harry listens sympathetically to his friend and provides comfort. Why did the writers of the play make the ham-fisted change of turning Harry’s friend’s story into Harry’s? The effect is actually to validate Harry’s homophobia (which we also see in Frannie); he’s disgusted by his own gay history and cowardice, so he cruelly projects his self-loathing onto Barbara. If he’d been afraid for her because of what happened to Harvey, that would have been enough. It ruined the show for me. Until the big gay reveal, I’d been thinking that sure, A Letter for Harvey Milk felt dated and cozy and obvious in its message of tolerance, but that would make it an effective production for high schools. The Holocaust story made think this show has a good message for no one. No one should need to live an experience to sympathize with others who have. Don’t be accepting of LGBT people because you have a gay hardware-store owning neighbor or a teenage gay experience in your past; be accepting of LGBT people because it’s the moral thing to do.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.