New York is a mecca for Jewish theater of all kinds, but budding Jewish playwrights often have a difficult time getting their creations in front of audiences. Now comes JFest, a festival of three remarkably different new Jewish works. The festival kicks off this weekend at the JCC in Manhattan after runs at the JCCs in West Hartford, Conn., and Wayne, N.J.
Nancy Holson, along with her daughter, Amy Holson Schwartz, are producing the festival. Holson has staged a political satire show, “The News in Revue,” for two decades; it has run for 15 summers in the Berkshires, and spawned PBS specials. Her first foray into Jewish theater came in 2010 when she produced an Off-Broadway comedy, “Can I Really Date a Guy Who Wears a Yarmulke?” In conceiving JFest, she said, she was looking for plays that “leaned toward entertainment.”
First up is “Aquatic Information,” a multimedia exploration by flutist Wendy Luck of her Jewish roots. Inspired by old recordings of her Jewish grandmother’s stories of escaping from the Bolsheviks, as well as of her grandfather’s chanting cantorial trope, Luck weaves her own musical compositions into the soundtrack of their voices. In doing so, she noted, she “follows the same trajectory that they did, in finding their freedom and their voice.”
James Nelson’s “The Second Sun” is a two-character drama set in the early 1950s. The playwright appears as Max, a former army medic who meets Joy (Eden Epstein), a young woman from Scarsdale who has left her husband. He asserted that the play, which contains what he calls “colossal secrets,” is a “story of hope — of the capacity for love in the wake of enormous tragedy.”
The festival concludes with “The Gefilte Fish Chronicles,” a musical by Iris and David Burnett based on their acclaimed 2007 film documentary of the same name; it tells the story of the descendants of Abe and Minnie Dubroff, who emigrated in 1904 from Russia to Brooklyn. It was performed last year at the White House in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month.
With music and lyrics by Matty Selman, the buoyant show begins in the present and then flashes back to family seders in the 1940s and ’50s. One of the non-Jewish actors, Iris recalled, “never expected the show to pack such an emotional wallop.” Then again, she reflected, “People feel comforted by Jewish tradition; it makes them feel safe. They want to know the recipes, the music, and the stories from the past.”
JFest runs at the JCC in Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Ave. at 76th Street. “Aquatic Information” will be performed on Sunday, June 8 at 5 p.m.; “The Second Sun” on Tuesday, June 10 at 6 p.m., and “The Gefilte Fish Chronicles” on Wednesday, June 11 at 8 p.m. For tickets, $15-20, call the box office at (646) or visit www.jccmanhattan.org.