Given the vicissitudes of Jewish history, it is no wonder that Jews developed a bleakly comic vision, a sense of life as teetering awkwardly on the edge of an abyss. Such a philosophy is amply on display in Lazarre Seymour Simckes’ absurdist new play, “Open Rehearsal,” in which a troupe of actors who are members of the same family rehearse a bizarre drama that enfolds with the fractured logic of a variety show. As the play-within-a-play keeps turning itself inside out, the characters finally find security only by clinging to one another. The farce, reminiscent of Pirandello, opened this week at Theater for the New City.
In “Open Rehearsal,” directed by the playwright, an imperious director attempts to conduct a chaotic rehearsal even as the daughter of the family, a sex-obsessed college student, carries on with the lighting assistant (Josh Black), whose shocking ineptitude almost electrocutes the entire cast. The character, who happens to be the grandmother in the family (Sheila Mart), is thrown out of the theater but reappears to do tai chi exercises on stage. And the father (David Mansley), who has had affairs with his wife’s two sisters, commits suicide only to return as a ghost at the daughter’s engagement party. As scenes are performed out of order and characters switch roles, the lines between illusion and reality becomes increasingly tangled and blurred.
Simckes grew up in the Boston suburb of Mattapan, where his father, Herbert I. Simckes, served as the rabbi of a Modern Orthodox congregation. On his mother’s side, the playwright is descended from generations of chasidic rebbes in Russia. Simckes published his first novel soon after graduating from Harvard College and then went on to earn a doctorate in English, also from Harvard. He then trained at the Kantor Family Institute in Boston, and his career has included many years as a therapist, including working with sex offenders in prisons. Among his other plays are “Seven Days of Mourning,” which deals with parents’ refusal to mourn their daughter’s suicide, and “Nossig’s Antics,” based on a real-life Jewish intellectual in Poland, Alfred Nossig, who was assassinated by the Jewish Underground for allegedly collaborating with the Nazis.
The playwright called “Open Rehearsal” a “mixture of the Marx Brothers and Ionesco.” While none of the characters are explicitly identified as being Jewish, Simckes remarked that the play “takes the form of a Jewish joke,” in which even the most unbearable tragedy becomes a “window of opportunity” from which something positive can emerge.
His newest work is, in the playwright’s words, “constantly interrupting itself, trying to find itself.” His play ultimately suggests that “nothing stays still. A blessing is a curse in disguise — or vice versa. But there’s never a nihilistic moment.” All is never lost, Simckes concluded. “Jewish tradition teaches that things can turn on a dime. Someone can earn the next world at the last moment.”
“Open Rehearsal” runs through Feb. 5 at Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave. (at 10th Street). Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. For tickets, $10, call (212) 254-1109 or visit www.theaterforthenewcity.net.