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J. Smith-Cameron in Sarah, Sarah
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Although this point is not made often in contemporary drama, some dysfunctional families strive to be functional in the face of histories that mitigate against cohesion. The family Daniel Goldfarb watches through a magnifying glass in the echo-y Sarah, Sarah is one of those attempting to heal itself over time. There's something gratifying, if perhaps not entirely satisfying, about watching what amounts to four generations of them come close enough to living happily ever after -- for a while, at least.

The title of this admittedly autobiographical work refers to two Sarahs. (Without giving too much away, it can be noted that the title is touchingly inserted in the dialogue at a crucial moment.) The first Sarah (J. Smith-Cameron) is the punitive Grosberg matriarch and Toronto immigrant who, in 1961, invites her son's fiancée, Rochelle Bloom (Lori Prince), to tea so that she can assess her prospective daughter-in-law. While chum Vincent (Richard Masur) serves as cleaning man (in a housedress, no less), bustling about and occasionally reiterating his Communist beliefs, Sarah decides that Rochelle doesn't measure up. The young woman comes from no money and, though spunky and very much in love, has limited prospects. When son Artie (Andrew Katz) unexpectedly hurtles through the door and learns that Sarah wantes Rochelle return the engagement ring, out pops confirmation of a secret that he's been keeping from his mother and an even larger secret that the implacable Sarah has kept from him. As the act ends, it looks as if these upsetting revelations have caused an irreparable rift between the unlikeable Sarah and her well-meaning son.

When the second act begins and James Noone's cozy Toronto apartment has been replaced by his version of a Holiday Inn suite in Hefei, China, it's 40 years later. Jeannie Grosberg (J. Cameron-Smith again, no longer in the black Paul Huntley wig with rat that she wore earlier) is trying to cope with her father, Artie (Richard Masur, now out of the housedress that costumer Michael Krass had provided). The friction between these Grosbergs is caused by the fact that Jeannie has adopted a baby. Despite reassurances received from another adopting couple, Miles (Andrew Katz) and Maggie (Lori Prince), that Jeannie's malnourished 10-month-old will ultimately flourish, father Artie thinks he knows best when advising his daughter to return the orphaned infant, who is now named after her deceased grandmother. Jeannie, already in love with the child, refuses. As father and daughter visit the Great Wall of China with young Sarah in arms, Artie comes around to accepting the baby.

In the retelling, Sarah, Sarah may sound like a couple of chapters lifted from a Belva Plain novel -- the multiple generations, the secrets that can only be hidden for so long, the repercussions when truth cracks anxiously preserved facades, the complex and conflicting passions, all leading to the eventual restoration of order. The chapters, as it were, have been edited for the stage so that only the most salient information is retained. There's a difference, however, between a play that's written economically and one that scants the material covered; Goldfarb, who has made the many aspects of Judaism his subject in a growing library of works, is guilty of that mistake. In the first act of Sarah, Sarah, he brings on the tough-minded mother and her crony, tells only enough about them for the audience to get the picture, introduces eager-to-please Rochelle and hopeful Artie, spills the beans on Sarah's darkest fear and Artie's clandestine enterprise (he's supposedly a dental student), and cuts the action off when Sarah has issued her ultimatum. Suggesting that Sarah and Vincent have rich pasts, both separately and as friends, Goldfarb is content to drop background material like crumbs along an unexplored trail and leave it at that.

The playwright is withholding in the second act as well, when it becomes clear that Artie never had to accede to his mother's either-or proposition. He married Rochelle and he's raised Maggie without confiding to her his mother's secret -- which, upon the adoption of the infant Sarah, takes on an ironic edge. (If Belva Plain had written this as a saga, it's a safe bet that whatever led to Artie's marrying Rochelle over Sarah's dead body would have been scrupulously reported in all of its convoluted details. Maybe the marriage was able to take place because Sarah did turn into a dead body?) Furthermore, Jeannie's decision to be a single mom comes from nowhere. In a quick passage, she dismisses the men in her life but her exclamations aren't enough to tell us why. The character of Artie is also only sketchily filled in and his turnaround seems a bit premature.

J. Smith-Cameron, Richard Masur, and
Andrew Katz in Sarah, Sarah
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
So much is withheld as Goldfarb scurries to that Great Wall finale -- China's Great Wall being a metaphor for both divisiveness and union -- that one might wonder if the very act of withholding is itself a metaphor and not just a function of the fact that today's stage dramas sometimes seem like theatrical sound bites. Interestingly, Goldfarb has reported that Sarah, Sarah is a fictionalized version of a trip to China that he made with his father and sister when she was adopting a baby. (He has removed himself from the play, however.) Often, angry or frustrated family members express unspoken feelings through the withholding of affection. Perhaps in writing this piece, which he says is about parents learning to stop controlling their children's lives, Goldfarb may also be unconsciously writing about children who get back at manipulative parents by keeping their feelings in check. Perhaps he's still less comfortable with his family that he's willing to let on.

Playing two roles apiece under Mark Nelson's understanding direction, in Michael Krass's costumes and under Howell Binkley's lights, the cast is admirable. Since Sarah is an unappealing character, the temptation to soften her must be strong. J. Smith-Cameron, however, allows no sentiment into her portrayal of a woman who holds onto her accent (Deborah Hecht is the dialogue coach) as tenaciously as she holds onto her son. (It's worth noting that the Jewish mother in Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers is a similar figure.) As the quietly agitated Jeannie, Smith-Cameron gets the chance to be vulnerable and seizes it. Richard Masur is funny as the cross-dressing Vincent but also forcible when the man in babushka and skirt gives his friend what for; his older Artie is sympathetic and understanding. Lori Prince and Andrew Katz also suggest the commonplace and recognizable human weaknesses and strengths to which Goldfarb calls attention.

There's an old theater adage that says, "always leave them wanting more." It's often very good advice. But the sometimes effective Sarah, Sarah leaves the audience wanting more to such an extent that the play itself is wanting.

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