It may be the world’s oldest profession, but it was the last place that a nice Jewish boy from Dix Hills, L.I., expected to land a job after college. In Josh Mesnik’s autobiographical new comedy, “Have I Got a Girl For You,” directed by Sara Sahin, the playwright stars as the manager of one of the largest escort agencies on the East Coast, a job that taught him the ins and outs of the business of prostitution. The play, which won the Audience’s Favorite Award at last month’s Fringe Festival, returns this weekend for a limited run at The Player’s Theatre on MacDougal Street. It was one of only 15 shows, out of 187, to be chosen by the Fringe for a series of encore performances.
Mesnik was a 23-year-old NYU grad and aspiring musical theater performer when he interviewed for a job as a personal assistant to a lesbian Jewish businesswoman, Gina (Eileen Faxas), a former centerfold in adult magazines. In recovery from addictions to alcohol and drugs, and with major debts to repay, the openly gay actor took over the daily operations of the agency, where his show business puns ingratiated him with the girls (all played by Kim Morgan Dean) and with the executives (all played by Jon Seymour), many of whom were Jewish, who called in for their appointments. He eventually left the business and became a sommelier.
In an interview, Mesnik said that he rationalized his involvement in prostitution, figuring that “it would happen anyway,” so he might as well be the one to profit from it. “The incongruity was that I was trying to get more in touch with my spiritual side, which I had taken leave from after my bar mitzvah.” In writing the play, he modeled his character after Anne Baxter’s in the classic 1950 film, “All About Eve,” in which she plays an ingénue who invades the life and career of the aging actress played by Bette Davis.
“Have I Got a Girl For You” (a reference to Stephen Sondheim’s song of the same title from “Company”) is reminiscent of Sholem Asch’s 1907 play, “God of Vengeance,” in which a Jewish brothel keeper attempts to regain his respectability by sponsoring a Torah, only to find that his daughter is conducting a lesbian affair with one of the girls in his employ. Indeed, in the Yiddish-speaking Jewish communities in both New York and Buenos Aires at the turn of the 20th century, a number of Jews were accused of perpetrating “white slavery,” in which girls were imported from Europe and put to work in brothels. This fed anti-Semitic rhetoric that linked supposed Jewish greed with sexual immorality.
Edward Bristow’s book, “Prostitution and Prejudice: The Jewish Fight Against White Slavery, 1870-1939,” (Schocken, 1983), was one of the first studies to explore the historical connection between Jews and prostitution. The professor of history at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus told The Jewish Week that the Italians, French and Jews were all associated with human trafficking. He views grinding poverty, rapid secularization and urbanization, and a growing generation gap as major factors that contributed to the involvement of immigrant girls in the sex trade.
While Jewish gangsters may be somewhat romanticized nowadays, Bristow said that Jewish pimps and prostitutes are not viewed in such a glamorous light. “There are clearer victims with prostitution,” he said. “It’s a lot nastier than being involved with Murder Incorporated.”
“Have I Got a Girl For You” runs at the Player’s Theatre Mainstage, 115 MacDougal St. Performances are Thursday, Sept. 13 at 10 p.m., Friday, Sept. 14 at 10 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 15 at 7:30 p.m., Friday, Sept. 21 at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, Sept. 22 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets, $18, call (212) 691-1555 or visit www.SohoPlayhouse.com.