Alice Cannon and Donald Warfield
in Welcome to America
(© Louis Zwiebel)
Alice Cannon and Donald Warfield
in Welcome to America
(© Louis Zwiebel)
H. Leivick's 1920s family drama Schmattes should be an ideal opportunity to see how Yiddish theater assessed the immigrants' first-generation experience nine decades back. But Welcome to America, Ellen Perecman's adaptation of the show now at the at 45th Street Theatre, is only intermittently successful, as is the production which it's being given.

Leivick organizes his drama around Mordechai Maze (Donald Warfield), a Talmud-studying immigrant who sorts fabric scraps for a living and compulsively views himself and his family as metaphorical scraps in their adopted land of the U.S.

Bitter at a plight he sees no way of reversing, Mordechai perplexes and verbally abuses wife Rokhl-Leye (Alice Cannon) and consistently alienates son Harry (Joshua Odsess-Rubin) and daughters Sadie Maze Fink (Claire Kennedy) and Annie Maze Levi (Jessica DiSalvo). Making matters worse for Mordechai is that the man Annie has recently married -- before informing the family -- is Mordechai's boss' son, Morris Levi (Anthony Peebles).

Dividing the quick-to-anger patriarch from his children more deeply is an unexpressed fear that he's lost them to a country where he's marginalized and where they're rapidly assimilating -- Annie drives a new car, while Harry, always on the go, plays neighborhood baseball. Mordechai is so estranged from them -- and himself -- that he undermines the strike against the Levi management that his co-workers expect him to lead.

Leivick's action unfolds around the family's dining-room table over several weeks during which one (unseen) major event is a wedding celebration that Annie and Morris have organized, but from which Mordechai flees because, as he insists to Rokhl-Leye who's come to fetch him, Annie revealed her embarrassment every time she introduces him as her father.

Sitting mostly in white-hot silence, Mordechai rejects overtures to return to the affair just as he refuses to satisfy any demand made of him, whether it comes from his beleaguered spouse about the children, his scrap-sorting colleague Elye (Alvin Keith) about the strike, or his inebriated boss about a wage-and-hours compromise.

While Leivick's dysfunctional-family dramatics are mostly effective, he doesn't push them far enough. To the contrary, he abruptly terminates proceedings at the moment it seems a final confrontation between Mordechai and Harry will provide the cathartic conclusion to which the play has been building. (Or is this an outcome of Perecman's 90-intermissionless-minutes reshaping?)

The production is also further hampered by two decisions made by director Stephen Fried. In a revival where period authenticity is part of the purpose, the inclusion of three African-American actors as Lower East side Jews means some ticket buyers will spend too much time thinking something is off-kilter when they should be considering the play.

Furthermore, choosing not to have the actors employ at least a hint of Eastern European accents disregards the circumstances in which those Jewish parents and children found themselves drifting apart. Often, political correctness erodes theatrical effect, and unfortunately, this is one of those instances.