Perpetual Insanity


Tortured: David Chandler and Elizabeth Marvel in Meshuga

Jewish émigrés in post-World War II Manhattan, grimly remembered.

by Cary M. Mazer


McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ, through Nov. 8, (609) 683-8000

The one (and only) fascinating thing about Meshugah is the world it dramatizes. Adapted by director Emily Mann from a novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer serialized in the 1950s in the Yiddish newspaper The Forward, Meshugah depicts the urbane world of pre-war Yiddish-speaking artists and intellectuals in Warsaw, uneasily transplanted to postwar New York City. Depending on when they arrived in New York, they are all either émigrés, refugees or survivors. Anyone who is not either an émigré, a refugee or a survivor is dead. And the ones who did make it to New York are, in spirit, often more dead than alive, trying desperately to believe in a God whose wisdom they can accept but whose mercy has failed.

Aaron Greidinger (David Chandler) is, as Singer was, a short-story writer and novelist paying his bills by working as a columnist for The Forward. Like Singer, Aaron arrived in New York with one of his brothers in the 1930s, and so missed the events in Europe that destroyed his community and killed most of his friends and all of his family.

In his life and in his fiction, Aaron takes on himself the stories of the thousands of Warsawites left behind. One such story is that of his friend Max (Michael Constantine), whom Aaron thought dead, but who pops into Aaron's office and into his life, introducing Aaron to his young mistress Miriam (Elizabeth Marvel). In a world haunted by death, the love that Aaron and Miriam instantly share makes him think of her as a kind of regeneration, an act of Tikkun - of healing the world.

The obstacle to their love is neither Max, nor Miriam's psychotic husband, but what Aaron discovers are Miriam's lies, or rather what Spinoza calls "distorted truths." As Aaron learns more and more of Miriam's story, each layer of truth is revealed to be another layer of lies, until he reaches a core of truth that neither lust nor love can salvage, a truth that shows the world to be unhealable.

This is grim stuff, and it feels unrelentingly grim in Mann's adaptation and staging. Elizabeth Marvel is wonderful as the chameleon-like Miriam, capable of being transformed by love, of appearing to become a new person, and of reverting to the schoolgirl (or fugitive, or teenage prostitute, or collaborator?) she once was.

But we see Miriam through Aaron's eyes, and Aaron, as narrator, sets the play's philosophically despairing tone. And since the dramatic adaptation retains a novelistic structure, all we can do is sit and wait, with Aaron, for the next revelation about Miriam, and to brace ourselves for the next round of Aaron's tortured philosophizing.

People use the word "Meshugah" (crazy) in contemporary Yinglish to suggest daftness or ditziness. But the mishegoss of Singer's novel and Mann's play is of a world turned upside-down, a world that has already died but that pretends to go on living.

So, nu? Don't go expecting a comedy.