In some ways, “Conversations with my Father” describes the typical immigrant story: A man leaves the old country to fight his way uptown in the New World, facing hatred and persecution while wrestling with his identity as a Jew and an American. It follows a similarly tried-and-true convention in examining family relations: A man is cleaning out his dead father’s restaurant when he is catapulted through a series of revelation-punctuated flashbacks that reveal both men’s similar characters. The man finally takes his father’s place by yelling at his own son from behind the bar. While certain plot points may be familiar, the script is far from simple, easy or generic — characters, their choices and the implications of those choices are complex. What steals the senior project is the energy with which director Jaime Totti ’09 and lead actor Gabriel Sloyer ’09 take on the challenges of the script, inviting the audience to do the same.
The conversation begins as a monologue: Eddie, played by Sloyer, stands beside the bar and above the carriage and tries desperately to get his toddler son to say the word “moose.” Then “ball.” No luck. The boy doesn’t speak until the second act, but Eddie’s pleas, rants and tantrums are fascinating to watch — Sloyer tells the immigrant backstory of the play’s explosive protagonist with energy and alacrity, convincingly covering the dramatic shifts of Eddie’s mood. Sloyer’s impressive performance is complemented by a strong cast of colorful characters. Especially noteworthy are Tommy Crawford ’09 as the old Yiddish theater actor Anton Zaretsky and Danielle Tomson ’12 as Eddie’s spirited, joke-loving wife Gusta (Eddie’s only company for much of the day that comprises Act One). From a nearly empty stage, the act builds in energy as it introduces new characters and conflicts, ending with a full stage and a rapid series of triumphs and tumults.
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The second act jumps ahead through time more aggressively, and the audience watches the family’s life unfold from Charlie the narrator’s childhood to the present. Meeting the young Charlie is a delightfully painful experience — after almost 90 minutes of observations and judgments from the grown-up it is satisfying to see the irredeemably dweeby 11-year-old take the stage.
If there is one criticism of the show, it is that it sometimes forgets it’s funny. Very funny. Not only Gusta’s jokes and Eddie’s one-liners — “bring me your tired, your hungry, your alchies, your winos,” and “stow the yami, kid” (a yarmulke is “not an outdoor garment”) — but much of the story itself. While there is much in the way of impressive drama, several of the more serious moments in the piece, such as the death of Eddie’s oldest son or the fact that his bar prospers only when Gusta markets it as an ethnic hobble after years of Eddie’s attempts to reject their heritage, are at least partially clichéd. In contrast, the humor is all original and exceptionally clever. Audiences should expect a long show with great acting: Come prepared to think, and to laugh.
“Conversations with my Father” plays tonight at 8p.m. and tomorrow at 2p.m. and 7p.m. at the Whitney Theater.