Midlife Crisis, Jewish Style

Midlife Crisis, Jewish Style

In ‘Herman Kline,’ a doctor grapples with his mortality.

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 Josh Koenigsberg’s “Herman Kline’s Midlife Crisis,” a successful Jewish trauma doctor at Mount Sinai Hospital (Adam LeFevre) risks his life and career when he brings home a bag of crack cocaine that he has found in a dead patient’s rectum.

Besides Kline, the other characters are the doctor’s wife, Liz (Kathryn Kates); a young premed student and family friend, Lauren (Mary Quick) and Lauren’s boyfriend, Ernie (Bobby Moreno), who is a drug dealer.

While there is little consensus among sociologists and psychologists that the “midlife crisis” actually exists, or if it does, that it affects more than a small percentage of either the male or female population, “Herman Kline” is in a long tradition of stories about men going emotionally haywire when they reach middle age. Among these are the 1955 film, “The Seven Year Itch,” John Cheever’s iconic 1964 short story “The Swimmer” and more recent films “American Beauty” and “Lost in Translation.”

Koenigsberg, 27, grew up in Greenwich Village, where his family attended the Conservative Synagogue of Fifth Avenue. He majored in philosophy at Bard College, and then went on to the playwriting program at Columbia University, under the tutelage of well-known playwright Kenneth Lonergan.
Koenigsberg scored a success with his first play, “Al’s Business Cards,” which got a solid Times review for its farcical humor.

In an interview, Koenigsberg called “Herman Kline,” which is directed by Sherri Eden Barber, a “bittersweet comedy about the bizarre ways in which we deal with our own mortality.” He maintained that the play “could not be written by anyone but a Jew,” given its themes of faith and doubt, and the characters’ clinging to tradition in the face of uncertainty and unpredictability.

Koenigsberg noted that “Herman Kline” was inspired most directly by the 1980 film, “Atlantic City,” written by John Guare, in which Burt Lancaster plays an aging gangster caught up in a web of drug dealing and murder. But he also cited a diverse cluster of other influences, from Lonergan’s “This is Our Youth” and “Lobby Hero,” to Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone” television shows, Louis Malle’s 1950s French film thriller “Elevator to the Gallows” and Leslie Nielsen’s “Naked Gun” comedy films.

Koenigsberg disclosed that he gets a lot of his playwriting ideas from working regularly on an upstate orchard and chicken farm —Fishkill Farms, owned by his high school chum, Josh Morgenthau and Josh’s father, the legendary Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau. Indeed, Koenigsberg’s next play focuses on an old baseball pitcher whose nephew plays for a minor league team in the Hudson Valley.

Farming is, the playwright confessed “ my secret life,” adding, “I’ve lived in New York all my life, but sometimes I need to tune out all the noise of the city. When I’m up there, and I tell people that I’m a playwright, people look at me as strangely as when I’m at a theater party and I tell people that I’m a farmer.”

“Herman Kline’s Midlife Crisis” runs through Sept. 3 at the Beckett Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St. Performances are Tuesdays at 7 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. For tickets, $42.50, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit www. telecharge.com.

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