CONVERSATIONS WITH MY FATHER Play by Herb Gardner. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Starring Judd Hirsch, Tony Shalhoub, David Margulies. At the Royale Theatre.
HERB GARDNER'S new comedy-drama manages to be at the same time a primer on Yiddishisms plus an informal chronicle of one Jewish-American family's quest for assimilation. Employing source material that harks back at least to Anne Nichols and Gertrude Berg, Mr. Gardner takes a leisurely stroll down the memory lane of Eddie Ross (Judd Hirsch), nee Goldberg, a New York City immigrant whose bar serves as the scene for a chronicle spanning some 40 years (1936-76).
Eddie is master of all he surveys in his unpretentious Lower East Side premises. The jukebox plays numbers like "America the Beautiful." Tiny American flags sprout from the imitation pineapples that adorn each table. Eddie never tires of expounding the values of the land of opportunity - even after anti-Semitic bullies beat up his young son.
At one point, Eddie even seems indifferent to the plight of Jewish holocaust victims, apparently because President Roosevelt has not yet committed the United States to World War II. But when it comes to defending his own turf, Eddie proves more than a match for two hoods.
On the whole, however, playwright Gardner is concerned less with melodrama than with identifying and depicting the denizens of Eddie's place. Chief among them is Zeretsky (David Margulies), an itinerant actor and family lodger who is a skeptical observer of Eddie's American success story. Commenting on the bar owner's adoptive name of "Ross," Zeretsky remarks: "My regards to your wife, Betsy."
Mr. Gardner spices his play with this sort of ethnic-flavored humor. "Conversations With My Father" turns serious only when the family receives word that young Joey (Tony Gillan), a Navy gunner, has been killed in the course of a kamikaze aerial attack in the Pacific.
As the abrasive Eddie, Mr. Hirsch, an award-winning Gardner veteran, gives a performance that sees the comic side of Eddie's new chauvinism while paying due respect to the man's spirit of independence and enterprise.
Tony Shalhoub, doubling as narrator-participant son Charlie, combines irony with good-natured affection and respect for his pa. The well-attuned cast directed by Daniel Sullivan includes Jason Biggs as Young Joey, Gordana Rashovich as wife Gusta, and Marilyn Sokol and William Biff McGuire as a couple of bar regulars.
Tony Walton has designed a setting of shabby hospitality bathed in a perpetual twilight by Pat Collins. Robert Wojewodski created costumes that adapt to passing times.