THEATRE Conversation-stopper

Conversations with My Father Old Vic, London
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The Independent Culture
By a quirk of coincidence, London now has two plays in which a Jewish American hero, ill-at-ease with his ethnic identity, changes his name from Goldberg to something more palatable to the goyim. Like Arthur Miller's Broken Glass, Conversations with My Father - Herb Gardner's Broadway hit now staged by Alan Ayckbourn at the Old Vic - looks at the difficulties of being Jewish and a perpetual immigrant in the Land of the Free. The big difference is that whereas Miller's play plunged almost embarrassingly deep into the messy painfulness of the problem, Gardner's work is strenuously anxious to offer its targeted middle-brow Broadway audience a little of everything it fancies; you laugh a little, cry a little and, in my case, you fidget a lot.

There's no denying the excellence of Judd Hirsch's central performance. He created the role of Eddie in New York and brings his faultless comic timing and strongly appealing physical presence to Gardner's growly Jewish patriarch, a man who lives (as one of his sons puts it) "at the top of his voice and the edge of his nerves". A refugee from the October 1905 pogrom in Odessa, Eddie now owns a Canal Street pub which, in keeping with his broadly assimilationist tendencies, is done up in elaborate "early American" style.

A play about the troubled relations between fathers and sons, Conversations with My Father shows us Eddie filtered through the memories of his younger boy Charlie (Michael Mears) who, by 1976, the date at which the piece opens and closes, is a lanky, balding best-selling novelist. An eavesdropper on his own revived past, Charlie acts as our guide to a slice of personal reminiscence-cum-social history that stretches from 1936 to 1965. The hokey manipulativeness of the piece is evident from the start, though.

When it begins with Eddie berating Charlie in his pram for refusing to use words, you take a small bet with yourself that the positions will be reversed (courtesy of a stroke) by the end. And it's characteristic of the play's sitcom streak (reality sacrificed for a contrived laugh- line) that the first words with which baby Charlie breaks his silence should be "poppa" and "no shit from bobody."

True, the play shows you what it felt like to be Jewish through several phases of American history, including the 1940s when, while European Jews were being slaughtered in concentration camps, their US counterparts were being persecuted as war profiteers. This drives Eddie's beloved older boy, Josh (excellent Adam Levy), to go off and die a hero's death in the navy, whereupon the father breaks off all remaining diplomatic relations with the Jewish God.

Nevertheless, there's a strong sense that a lot of the specific cultural references are lost on an English audience and that the play would benefit from a more intimate house than the Old Vic. The bravest thing it does is leave the father-son conflict genuinely unresolved and full of contradictions. When the youngest son makes it big as a novelist, the father, as a buyer into the American Dream, should logically rejoice, but he remains unimpressed. He also complains that the portrait of himself in his son's novels could be a man of any race, a fact which, ironically in view of his way of life, he finds hard to accept.

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Paul Taylor

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