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Broadway’s Very Jewish Year

Broadway’s Very Jewish Year

From Shylock to Sondheim, a rich year on the boards.

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

In a year of great theater, both on and off Broadway, many of the most memorable performances were turned in by actors in Jewish plays. Herewith, in no particular order, are the Jewish Week’s top five Jewish plays of 2010, three of which are still running into 2011.

‘The Merchant of Venice’

New Yorkers have had two chances to see Al Pacino playing Shylock — first in Central Park last summer and now in the same production, directed by Daniel Sullivan, that has transferred to the Broadhurst Theater on Broadway. Reprising his role from the Michael Radford film, Pacino has put his own both feral and highly affecting stamp on the timeless Shakespearean moneylender. While his Shylock seemed a bit toothless when he appeared in the park, his performance appears to have sharpened considerably on Broadway.

Set in the Edwardian era, Sullivan uses a set of interlocking metal cages and towers to play up the work’s preoccupation with spatial, class and psychological differences in Venetian society, as well as with the threat that outsiders of all kinds pose to a Christian social order that is compromised from within by its contradictory attitudes toward wealth. Lily Rabe brings a blockbuster movie star quality to Portia and David Barbour plays a headstrong Bassanio in a production that boasts a uniformly excellent supporting cast. The production’s most ground-breaking moment comes at the very end, as Shylock undergoes a violent on-stage baptism and then dives for his yarmulke to put it back on his head.

While “Merchant” is easily the most frequently produced of all of Shakespeare’s plays in our post-Madoff New York, Sullivan’s production will likely be remembered as the greatest one of the play in our time. The play takes a hiatus for three weeks in January before returning for a final three weeks in February. At the Broadhurst Theatre, 235 W. 44th St. For tickets, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200.

‘Driving Miss Daisy’

James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave are both flat-out superb in Alfred Uhry’s play about the relationship between the stubborn Jewish Southerner of the title and her black chauffeur, Hoke, in postwar Atlanta. This episodic and rather low-key drama, which first ran Off Broadway in the late 1980s and won a Pulitzer Prize before being made into an unusually touching and highly decorated 1989 film, was nevertheless an unlikely candidate for high wattage Broadway treatment. But these two world-class actors are extraordinarily well matched, and they develop a powerful chemistry that transcends the play’s failure to build toward a real climax.

Jones’ return to the theater is particularly welcome; he imbues the role of the servant with real pathos and makes indelible the moment when he finally asserts himself and demands respect for his human dignity. Redgrave and Jones ultimately treat the play as a love story between two different kinds of outsiders in Southern society. Through April 9 at the Golden Theater, 252 W. 45th St. For tickets, call (212) 239-6200.

‘Sondheim on Sondheim’

This retrospective of Sondheim’s work, one of many tributesm to the composer’s 80th birthday, shed disappointingly little light on the composer’s Jewish identity, although it did give a strong sense of the pain of being raised by an abusive mother and his “adoption” by Oscar Hammerstein II. But with some standout performances from Barbara Cook and Vanessa Williams singing “Not a Day Goes By” (from “Merrily We Roll Along”) and “Losing My Mind” (from “Follies”) respectively, the production, directed by James Lapine, had some truly remarkable moments.

As impressive as the singers were, they were overshadowed by the eye-popping use of media, from dozens of small video screens that combined and scattered at different angles to form pictures of Sondheim as he was being interviewed at different stages of his career, to a hilarious YouTube montage of amateur versions of “Send in the Clowns.” This show has closed.

‘Circumcise Me’

In addition to boasting the wittiest title of any play that hit the boards in New York this year, this one-man show traces the remarkable odyssey of Yisrael Campbell, a Catholic boy from Philadelphia who converted three times — first to Reform Judaism, then to Conservative, and finally to Orthodox. Campbell, who has been compared to Seth Rogen in his appearance, sums up the contradictions of modern Jewish identity by embodying all the major streams of Judaism in one body.

By costuming himself as an ultra-Orthodox Jew (except for a tell-tale blue button-down shirt instead of the customary white), this Jerusalem-based, liberal Modern Orthodox Jew also plays brilliantly with the very notion of traditional Judaism. Filmed as a documentary about Campbell’s performances, “Circumcise Me” asks probing questions about one of our most sacred rituals and its relation to Jewish life. This show has closed.

‘La Cage Aux Folles’

Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein’s musical is not typically put in a Jewish category, given its lack of Jewish characters and explicit Jewish themes. But these two Jewish creators were clearly drawing on both their Jewish and gay identity in crafting this musical, which ran originally on Broadway in 1983 and had a major Broadway revival as recently as 2004. This year’s revelatory production, a transfer from London, scales down the splashy musical and puts the focus on the characters of the gay couple, played by Kelsey Grammer (“Frasier”) and the brilliant English actor Douglas Hodge.

Hodge, who won the Tony for best actor in a musical this year, combines brilliant physical comedy and heart-breaking emotional need in his portrayal of a man who is struggling to come to terms with his homosexuality. He is ably matched by Grammer, who finds great pathos in the role of the father of a son who conceals his family situation in order to marry the daughter of a conservative government minister. The two stars are slated to be replaced in mid-February by Jeffrey Tambor (“Arrested Development”) and Fierstein himself. At the Longacre Theatre, 220 W. 48th St. For tickets, (212) 239-6200.

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