Michael Takiff is so deadpan when you meet him offstage, it’s hard to believe his range when he steps in front of an audience. Other actors have performed one-man shows in which they play multiple characters, but there can’t be many who also portray the family dog. I’ve seen him — and it almost seems like he has a tail, wagging exuberantly.
That hound is part of the cast Takiff, an Elizabeth native, brings to life in “Black Tie,” the show he put together exploring his father’s life after the old man’s death. Alone in the spotlight, clad in a funereal black suit, Takiff introduces the audience to his immigrant grandmother, his siblings, and his work-weary dad, joyously welcomed not by his kids — who, absorbed in their rock music, almost ignore him — but by that rapturous canine.
Given the scope of his skills, it’s no great wonder this writer/actor/song-and-dance man (and Yale-graduate historian) has tackled an even bigger subject: His second one-man show, which will have its New Jersey premiere on Saturday evening, Jan. 26, in Maplewood, is titled “Jews, God, and History (Not Necessarily in that Order).”
The show, directed by Tony nominee Brian Lane, is, as Takiff puts it, “about Jews, but it’s not only about Jews. [It] explores the big questions asked by all people — about God and humanity, faith and reason, tribe and society.”
Given the humor in “Black Tie,” it is probably also very funny. As solemn as is his demeanor, Takiff can’t help joking about the world around him and — most of all — himself. That tendency and his plan to pursue a career as an entertainer didn’t exactly win his father’s approval, not while his two brothers were becoming doctors and his sister a social worker. But with fine irony, it fell to him not only to settle his dad’s financial affairs (“because they all assumed I was the one with time on my hands, which was true”) but also, as the designated family “observer,” to honor him.
The night I saw “Black Tie” in New York in early fall, the audience laughed and shrugged and grimaced along with him, but they didn’t all “get” another big character Takiff was presenting — Elizabeth, the city where he grew up and where he and his wife, a fellow Elizabethan, plan to be buried, alongside their forebears.
As he put it in an e-mail, “‘Black Tie’ tells a classic story — a man of the Depression/WWII generation and his life as the son of Jewish immigrants living the American dream in a gritty, working-class town.”
He told me that after Philip Roth — the legendary writer from, of course, next-door Newark — died, “it occurred to me that his writing was all about how the Jews navigated life in a place far more tolerant than anything we’d been used to in Europe, but still not entirely accepting of us.
“We’re more comfortable here than we’ve been anyplace before,” Takiff continued, “but still — even today — we sense that we’re a people apart from the majority, which (I think) continues to misunderstand us and view us with suspicion.”
His shows were composed in Manhattan, where Takiff lives with his wife and their son. He was based there through a decade of doing stand-up across the country and then writing a number of books, including “Brave Men, Gentle Heroes: American Fathers and Sons in World War II and Vietnam” and the award-winning “A Complicated Man: The Life of Bill Clinton as Told by Those Who Know Him.”
Takiff is also the founder and executive director of Gravitas History, a company that does commissioned biographies and family histories and enables individuals to write their own autobiographies. His clients have included members of Congress and leading businesspeople and philanthropists.
Despite all his years across the Hudson, when Takiff comes back to Elizabeth, including for his meeting with me and a visit to the old neighborhood, it is clear his roots are still strong.
On a damp, gray day perfectly suited to nostalgia, he showed me the two-family house where his grandparents lived, and then the greener, prettier Elmora section, where he and his siblings grew up. The headquarters of the Jewish Educational Center, the network of Orthodox synagogues and day schools, where he was a student, stops him in his tracks. With awe, Takiff recalled Rabbi Pinchas Teitz, the legendary founder and leader of the community, who died in 1995, and who, he said, showed true spirituality. “My grandmother wasn’t very observant, but he came to visit her after my grandfather died.”
We made one last stop in the Elizabeth tour: at the Gomel Chesed Cemetery, where members of his family are buried. Electrical pylons tower in the background and trains clatter past, and there — as he mentions in “Black Tie” — is the old Budweiser building. Not exactly a scene of pastoral peace, but Takiff approves. “It’s the kind of gritty working environment I come from,” he said. It matches his mood. In an e-mail he sent me later, he writes of the day, “For a while I wasn’t an orphan, and then I was again.”