Review: The People in the Picture

Donna Murphy doles out a dark nostalgia in a tearstained new musical about the Holocaust.

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  • Photograph: Joan Marcus

    DOLL IN THE FAMILY Murphy, left, nests up with Resheff

    DOLL IN THE FAMILY Murphy, left, nests up with Resheff.

  • The People in the Picture

    The People in the Picture

  • The People in the Picture

    The People in the Picture

  • The People in the Picture

    The People in the Picture

Photograph: Joan Marcus

DOLL IN THE FAMILY Murphy, left, nests up with Resheff

DOLL IN THE FAMILY Murphy, left, nests up with Resheff.

Time Out Ratings

<strong>Rating: </strong>3/5

The People in the Picture renders its story the way fat is rendered in an old Jewish home: over low heat, with traditional tools, in the service of making schmaltz. Iris Rainer Dart's sincere, well-meaning musical caters to a taste for sentiment spread thick; by the end of this sepia-toned weepie, set to music by retropop songwriters Mike Stoller and Artie Butler, many a hankie has been damped in the crowd. But crying at The People in the Picture is like crying at sliced onions (another ingredient of schmaltz). The show taps into reflex: It gets all our ducts in a row, then twists a minor key to pump the tears.

Donna Murphy wrings every drop from her starring role as Raisel Rabinowitz, a Holocaust survivor intent on sharing her memories with her young granddaughter, Jenny (Rachel Resheff), who is as eager to hear them as a child actor can pretend to be. Jenny's dour, mopey mother (Nicole Parker, in a thankless role) is less welcoming. Scenes of these characters in 1977 serve as a framing device for Raisel's flashbacks to the Yiddish-theater culture of midcentury Poland; Riccardo Hernandez's set is dominated by a huge, ornate picture frame that juts above the stage at an angle and doubles as a proscenium. The old-country sequences allow for klezmer-accented songs and proto--borscht belt clowning by fine performers including Joyce Van Patten, Hal Robinson, Lewis J. Stadlen and the perennially underappreciated Chip Zien.

Homey and nostalgic, this musical means to emphasize the importance of laughter in the face of tragedy. But the sob stories overwhelm the charm. A dying old woman, a child ripped from her parents, a lovable zany killed by thugs, a nation herded like beasts to the slaughter: These are just a few of the show's many tugs at our emotions. By the time we find Raisel in the Warsaw Ghetto, clutching a rag doll stained with the blood of a murdered Jewish friend, even the softest touch in the audience may grow wary of Dart's hard sell. The People in the Picture reminds us of the Holocaust's bitter injunction to never forget. It's a worthy effort, but work this blunt can't pierce very deep; the tears the show elicits are too easily wiped away.

See more Theater reviews

Studio 54. Book and lyrics by Iris Rainer Dart. Music by Mike Stoller and Artie Butler. Dir. Leonard Foglia. With Donna Murphy. 2hrs 20mins. One intermission.

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