Perhaps because Yiddish is such an expressive language, inundated with mirth and woe, it lent itself so naturally and so potently to the theater, despite thousands of years of anti-theatrical bias within traditional Jewish religion and culture. Or perhaps because the Second Avenue Yiddish theater was so vibrant, so ingrained into the life of immigrant Jews in New York, it has somehow retained its durability as a theatrical language. Or perhaps, after a decades-long period of near-obsolescence, the Yiddish theater has simply come back into fashion, like so many Ashkenazic foods like pastrami and gefilte fish have done in recent years.
On the heels of the break-out success of the Folksbiene’s Yiddish production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” which is about to transfer to an Off-Broadway theater, comes a new production, “Vartn Af Godot” (“Waiting for Godot”), by the New Yiddish Rep, translated by the Yiddish performer/magician Shane Baker. While the overlong production, directed by Ronit Muszkatblit, has its flaws, it nevertheless demonstrates yet again the power of Yiddish to shed new light not just on Jewish plays but on great works of world drama.
Samuel Beckett’s existential masterpiece about a pair of pathetic tramps whose long-expected, mysterious (perhaps divine?) guest never arrives may not seem like a natural candidate for translation into Yiddish. Unlike “Awake and Sing!” and “Death of a Salesman,” both of which the New Yiddish Rep has produced in recent years, it was not written by a Jewish playwright and has no Jewish characters, although Estragon was originally called Levy in Beckett’s first draft of the play.
Then again, the play does inhabit a post-Holocaust world in which the two main (possibly gay) characters, Vladimir (Eli Rosen) and Estragon (David Mandelbaum), engage in a continual vaudeville-type act, the very routine nature of which preserves them from falling into despair and ennui. Their struggle for survival is mirrored by that of the imperious Pozzo (Gera Sandler) and his slave, Lucky (Richard Saudek), whose sudden appearances, along with those of a boy (Noam Sandler and Myron Tregubov) who shows up at the end of each act with a disappointing message from the elusive Godot, punctuate the play.
Every New York production of “Waiting for Godot” has a high standard to meet, given how frequently the play is staged here. I missed last November’s highly praised Druid Theater production at the White Light Festival at Lincoln Center, as well as the 2013 Broadway production featuring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, and the Roundabout’s 2009 production that starred Nathan Lane, Bill Irwin, John Goodman and John Glover. But I will never forget seeing the searing 1996 Gate Theater of Dublin’s production at Lincoln Center, which was almost unbearable in its intensity.
The New Yiddish Rep has had much success with the play, which it first presented in New York in 2013 and subsequently performed both in Northern Ireland and in Paris. But those were presentations of a different production, helmed by Romanian director Moshe Yassur, with a mostly different cast, except for Mandelbaum. This new production, which runs close to three hours, is a bit of slog; while Rosen and Mandelbaum are both convincing and sympathetic in their performances, there are such long pauses between each of their speeches that any sense of immediacy is lost.
The break-out performance is by Gera Sandler (“Jellyfish”), the wonderful Israeli actor who is first sen with a pair of binoculars (from which he later drinks alcohol) around his neck, looking like an explorer from a Tintin cartoon. Sandler’s casual yet eminently believable approach makes his character, at least in the first act, seem perfectly at home in the bizarre world of the play. And one of the highlights of any production, the long Joycean stream-of-consciousness speech recited by Lucky, is given a kind of explosive urgency by Saudek, who seems like a scary Charles Manson lookalike with his long gray hair and crazed expression. But then it is back to Vladimir and Estragon, or Didi and Gogo as they call each other, and the production sinks back less into a routine than into a rut.
Yet there is no question that performing “Godot” in Yiddish adds new depths to the play. When Vladimir and Estragon talk about when Godot might arrive and suggest that perhaps it will be on “Shabbos” or “motzei Shabbos” (after the Sabbath), their words have much greater resonance than a discussion about Saturday or Saturday night. When Estragon conceives the idea of hanging himself, Vladimir’s “Gesundheit” (in good health) cannot help but be amusing and sardonic. Finally, when Estragon resorts to a kind of Talmudic sing-song in one of his speeches, the whole weight of Jewish history comes to bear on his predicament.
In the lobby of the 14th Street Y is an art exhibit of the works of Michal Geva that overlaps with the run of the play. Geva, who hails from Tel Aviv, takes photographs, pastes them to canvas, wood or glass and paints over them with acrylic paint. I was especially struck by a painting of a solitary tree, taken from the photograph of an Israeli landscape; it reminded me of the tree in “Godot,” which is interestingly created in this production by the skeleton of a large patio-type umbrella. Geva’s work is all about the effort to anchor bits of reality as they float by, to give them a context and a shape, just as Beckett’s play is about how human beings try to crystallize meaning in the face of flux and even despair.
“Vartn Af Godot” runs through Jan. 27 at the 14th Street Y, 344 E. 14th St. Performances are Monday, Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday evenings at 7:30 p.m. with Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. For tickets, $35, visit newyiddishrep.org.