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March 10th, 2007

Elizabethan Jews

We managed to get tickets today to the ante-penultimate performance of Marlow's The Jew Of Malta with F. Murray Abraham in the title role, done by Theatre for a New Audience in New York.

It was (and you'll think I'm not choosing my words carefully here) a hoot.

In this day and age, you can't do it straight. It's just too over the top. The on-stage body count is eight (not counting the Jew himself)-- four poisonings, a garotting, an execution, and two deaths in a manufactured duel. The off-stage body count includes an entire convent of nuns and the whole Turkish army. And although the eponymous Jew orchestrates all this mayhem, he's hardly the only villain of the piece. Every single character in the play, from abbot to caliph to governor to suitor to whore, is motivated solely and entirely by the desire for gold and power. Barabbas just happens to be better at getting it than anyone else.

Marlowe, as the dramaturg pointed out at the talk-back at the end of the play, was an equal-opportunity misanthrope. The play's not so much anti-Semitic as it is anti-human nature.

It's also really very funny, in a bleak and mordant way. They layered in a certain amount of comic stage business, but the biggest (and most uncomfortable) laughs came from the text itself, delivered with a little extra emphasis.

We loved it.

Ellen loved it so much, that when she asked a question at the talk-back, F. Murray Abraham told her that he'd noticed her while he was working, grinning and sitting forward and responding to everything. "She was like a little kid," he said. "Bouncing in her seat. I love seeing someone love something that much." (Full disclosure: the first sentence is a direct and accurate quotation. The second is fairly accurate in most of its words. The third might be wrong, but it's what I think I remember, and it was certainly something like that.)

That's my wife.

We wanted to see him do Merchant of Venice tonight, and we left our names on the waiting list and picked up a bite on 9th Ave and came back to wait and see if our names were called, and Ellen charmed the director, who was hanging out in the lobby. But no luck. Abraham is even as I type probably asking if a Jew has eyes, hands, organs, senses, dimension, affections. And I'm not hearing him do it. BUT. They're taping this performance to be archived at Lincoln Center, where we can go and sit in a booth with headphones and listen to it. So we'll do that. We really will.

The upshot of all this haring off after non-existent tickets is that I have left undone many things I ought to have done this afternoon, but I'm feeling more stimulated and intellectually buzzed than I have for days, and even had a long and useful talk with Ellen about where I'm stuck on my book. On balance, I'm a happy camper. How I'll feel about the work I didn't do at 3am, or when I'm on the train to New Haven (where my writing group is meeting these days, since it splits the distance between New York and Boston, where the other members still live), is less certain.

Maybe I better go and do some of it now.

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