Ned Eisenberg and Elizabeth Marvel in Meshugah(Photo © Bill Strong)
Ned Eisenberg and Elizabeth Marvel in Meshugah
(Photo © Bill Strong)
In Emily Mann's new play Meshugah, adapted from the Isaac Bashevis Singer novel, everyone's a little mad. Meshugah (Yiddish for "crazy") is about a trio of Polish Jews who have left behind the Holocaust and its horrors and are establishing lives for themselves in New York City, only to find that memories of the dead and deeds done live on.

Aaron Greidinger (Ned Eisenberg), mid-40s, a novelist and writer for the Yiddish paper The Daily Forward, is one of these lost souls. Stalled in his creative writing, he devotes most of his time to an advice column but is rapidly running out of advice; what, after all, does one say to console someone who has lost his entire family in concentration camps? But then Max Aberdam, an old friend presumed dead, shows up. Full of life and vigor, the older man -- played wonderfully by Ben Hammer -- is anxious to introduce Aaron to his young mistress, Miriam. Married, ill, and soon to be heading to the home country on business, Max wants to make a match between Aaron and Miriam.

If anyone in the play deserves to be called meshugah, it's Miriam, a twentysomething student who is writing a thesis on Aaron's work. As played by the marvelous Elizabeth Marvel, Miriam is an untamed spirit -- intelligent, unpredictable, quick to fall in love. She adores Max, but wastes no time in falling for Aaron. The two begin a passionate affair that turns rocky when Miriam's husband Stanley (Ted Koch, in a brief but memorable appearance) gets involved and when pieces of Miriam's sordid past begin to surface.

As realized by Mann and director Loretta Greco, Singer's world is an unsettling one. Set in the early 1950s, the production has a dark, almost noir-ish feel that is enhanced by the femme fatality of Miriam, but Michael Brown's simple set does little to evoke the New York of that -- or any -- era. While there is plenty of humor and insight from Singer, for whom Aaron is clearly a stand-in, the story is lacking in emotional resonance -- at least, as it is told here. The implication would seem to be that the devastation of the Holocaust is responsible for these peoples' moral ambivalence, but the fact that Aaron has no qualms about committing adultery makes it difficult for us to understand or care about his outrage upon discovering that Miriam did some unsavory things to survive her teen years in war-torn Europe. The power of a more compelling secret of Miriam's that's eventually revealed is also muted because Mann has not found a way to make its outrageousness palpable.

Of course, the fact that it's hard to care about these people may be the point. The final, striking image of the play has Aaron and Miriam holding hands, agreeing that their marriage will not yield children because the shared horror of their pasts is not something that should be passed down. A miserable pair, they are the (barely) living casualties of the Holocaust, and their story is worth being told.