One-Liners Translate in ‘Yiddish,’ But Plot Line Does Not

“Where do Jews come from?” asks a character in the first act of “A Little Night Yiddish.”

The play, written by Laura M. Togut ’08, may not answer this question, but it certainly gives the viewer a visual treat in its presentation of Yiddish theater and song. Despite a hard-to-follow plotline and technical difficulties related to the projection of English subtitles, the show was amusing and the cast was enthusiastic. Unfamiliarity with the Yiddish language or Jewish traditions didn’t prevent anyone from having a good time.

“A Little Night Yiddish” is a celebration of Jewish culture, communicated through traditional Yiddish songs and subject matter (this included the age-old “Jewish Mother” stereotype, which formed the basis of many comic one-liners). The first part focused on the plights of Jewish immigrants to the United States, while the second was set in a vaudeville Yiddish theatre.

The wandering plotlines, however, left the viewer confused. In the first act, for example, the link between the different characters’ stories was only revealed at the end, and in the second, only the scenery informed viewers as to the vaudevillian setting.

It was the humor in the show’s 22 Yiddish songs and the sketches that carried the production, even if the grand finale—“Yiddish Rhapsody,” based on the well-known “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen—was disappointing.

The song featured amusing lines such as “China Garden has only moo-shoo pork for me,” but the acting and singing skills of Jonathan K. Tam ’10 and Ilan J. Caplan ’10 drew the most laughter.

Tam, in particular, stood out—not only because he was the sole Asian in a predominantly white, Jewish cast. His renditions of “Ten Copecks” had the audience doubled up in laughter from the start, as did his performance as a vaudeville MC in the second act. Tam, who starred in last term’s production of “Urinetown,” successfully managed to belt out a number of Yiddish songs while prancing about.

Caplan, whose roles in the play ranged from Jewish immigrant father to wannabe tango star, deserves a special mention for his performance as well. Caplan was especially adept in his role as a disgruntled Jewish husband, demanding variety from his wife’s constant culinary reliance on potatoes. Unfortunately for him—but to the audience’s amusement—his wife appeared to have nothing but “bulbes” in her kitchen, despite Caplan’s extensive pleas for an omelette through the song “Bulbes.”

The cast also included Eliora Noetzel ’10, producer Rory M. Sullivan ’09, and Dani Green ’09 of the Longy School of Music.

No Yiddish play would be complete without a band to showcase some original tunes. Harvard’s own “L’Chaim Lounge Band”—compromised of Seth Flaxman ’08, Tom Wooten ’08, and Jason Schnier ’11—did just this, and kept the audience entertained during the intermission and the many technical delays. Each time they took to the stage, they were greeted with a barrage of hand-clapping and foot-stamping.

Unlike the Hillel’s projector, which acted up all night, the play ran smoothly and the audience remained glued to the stage rather than to the English subtitles that were occasionally projected above. And quite frankly, any production involving Shakespeare translated into Yiddish is destined to be a hit.