The Open Gate Leaves Itself “Open” to Criticism

Reviewed By Jara Jones

When tackling Isaac Bashevis Singer’s work, one has to have a distinct point of view. Do you stylize your production as a form of self-commentary depicting the specific time and faiths held by your characters?  Or, do you present the text with an objective eye, allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions?

The Open Gate is a musical adaption of Singer’s THE MANOR, centered around a deeply pious businessman (Calman Jacoby) whose prosperity allows him to make a controversial choice as a Jew: to acquire a manor in a predominant neighborhood and expand his wealth.  We’re treated to a broad focus on Jacoby’s family as well as the citizens of 1860’s Poland. Ultimately, Jacoby is tested by the modern world and his rising social status, forcing him to examine his religion and moral code.

Mark Marcante’s set design wonderfully makes use of gentle suggestion through the presentation of stoic columns, an ivy trellis masking the theater’s stairs, and rivets our focus to the titular gate.  It’s open, yet massive and imposing as well – an entrance which offers easy access, yet almost impossible to one to exit. Carolyn Adam’s costumes offer a welcome specificity and attention to the time period.  Joel Martin’s work as Calman Jacoby is both engaging and subtle, guiding each choice with vulnerable assuredness. Also, the cast is thankfully diverse and avoids the tired excuse that historical productions must be blindly rooted in the exact race each character would have been.

All of the above is to be applauded.  However, the musical as a whole is a lopsided mess. From the opening scene (which feels like the “It’s a Small World” version of the town of Jampol, complete with Russian soldiers behaving in a slapstick fashion while arresting citizens, their toy rifles lazily jabbing at their victims) to the long overdue, vague finale, the production comes off like a one-dimensional morality play.  It asks us to pity and feel connected to these thinly written characters without investing in or earning such a reaction. The choices of the direction and script clang with modern behavior and annoying reminders of what the playwright assures us is backward customs (I lost count how many times ritual baths were brought up as the sign of losing faith and the last threads of culture.)   The use of projections offers nothing but a distraction and feel sorely out of place – as evidenced by the actors knocking the screen time and again in scenes. Finally, in the current world of Kavanaugh and #metoo, having a college-aged actress portray Jacoby’s eight-year-old daughter, nibbling sloppily on a cookie like a four-year-old while sitting on her father’s lap, naively agreeing to become a child bride, feels gross and demeaning.  If the playwright wanted us to be uprooted by Jacoby’s decision to cast off his girl into an arranged marriage, either cast an actor of the appropriate age and/or don’t have our narrator (Shaindel) immediately proclaim to the audience that this marriage ended up being the happiest and most fulfilling one of all her father’s girls. Finally, the music feels jarring and unneeded. Nothing is sung that is that is little more than a repetition of the character’s prior dialogue, and there’s no music which stays with you after the show has concluded.

The Open Gate tries so hard to encapsulate a bird’s eye view of the Jacoby family as well as the citizens of Jampol, to make us sympathize and draw humor from each character’s decisions, but just falls flat on each turn.  When the first act ended, I felt surprised that we had another 75 minutes to go. All the essential struggles and fates of the principal characters had already been shown; what remained was padding. There’s a good hour and a half play (not musical) inside this show.  A tale of a family, a town unraveled by time and questioning one’s faith. I encourage the artistic team to find this truth.

The Open Gate runs until October 27th at Theater for the New City (155 First Ave, NY, NY 10003)

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