At NJ Rep festival, Jersey writer’s brief play speaks volumes

At NJ Rep festival, Jersey writer’s brief play speaks volumes

One-act about grandparents’ meeting evokes specter of Shoa, immigration issues

Eli Gelb and Lucy DeVito, who will reprise their roles in “How My Grandparents Fell in Love” at the NJ Repertory Company, from the Ensemble Studio Theater Production.
Eli Gelb and Lucy DeVito, who will reprise their roles in “How My Grandparents Fell in Love” at the NJ Repertory Company, from the Ensemble Studio Theater Production.

The plot can be summed up in a few sentences: A young man goes into a hat shop and hits on the young woman behind the counter. They banter for a while. She offers some resistance, but eventually appears to succumb to his come-on. 

But brief as it is, the play speaks volumes.

For the young man is a Polish Jew who immigrated to America but has returned to the Old Country in the hope of finding a wife; the young woman is Jewish but has no plans or desire to emigrate; and the year is 1933. 

Originally presented in New York by the Ensemble Studio Theatre (EST) — and a New York Times Critic’s Pick as part of EST’s 36th Marathon of One-Act Plays — “How My Grandparents Fell in Love” by New Jersey native Cary Gitter will be part of the “All About Eve” festival at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch (see sidebar).

Gitter, a New York-based member since 2015 of EST’s Obie Award-winning Youngblood playwrights’ group, is a much-lauded, multi-awarded, young (he just turned 30) artist whose already impressive roster of works includes several whose themes — and sometimes targets — are Jewish culture and characters (he was a finalist in the international Jewish Playwriting Contest). He’s even set some of his works in the suburban Jewish milieu of River Hill, N.J., a fictionalized version of his hometown of Leonia. 

Why, when so many of his writer peers steer clear of Jewish tropes, as Gitter observed in a phone call with NJJN, is he drawn to them?

It is because it is in Jewish life, he said, that he finds “so much culture and humor and contradiction and really fertile dramatic material.” As a writer, Gitter said, “I feel I have special authority to write about Jewish stuff — something that’s my own.” 

He acknowledged that “in a way it’s a throwback, an anachronism” that he focuses on such themes — but a throwback to an estimable literary tradition. “I worship the mid-20th-century Jewish writers,” he said. “I discovered Philip Roth in college, first through his [novel] ‘American Pastoral,’ and was so taken with his portrait of Jewish Newark in the ’40s and ’50s.” That era as depicted in Roth’s work echoed Gitter’s own late father’s upbringing in Jersey City, and the writer found in it a compelling creative introduction to the rich cultural legacy of the Jews.

“How My Grandparents,” however, is something more, based as it is on Gitter’s grandparents’ actual experience. 

His father’s father, a shoemaker like the play’s Charlie, did indeed immigrate to America, did return to Poland to fulfill a shidduch that did not work out, and did meet a feisty hat store salesgirl. He was, said Gitter, “bumbling and absent-minded” like Charlie, and his grandmother — like the play’s Chava — “was shrewd and sophisticated, with aspirations to get an education and make something of herself.” And they did ultimately form the “unlikely bond” of which Gitter is the second-generation result.

The tone of the play is humorous and light — reinforced by dialogue in the 21st-century vernacular, “f” word and all — after all, its characters don’t know what we know. Charlie has his suspicions — he’d like to take all the Jews out of Poland. But Chava is dismissive; when Charlie warns of Hitler’s designs on the Jews, Chava says, “He’s an idiot. Have you seen how he talks? And moves his arms? He’s a f—ing clown…. He’s not really gonna do any of that stuff.”

What hovers over the play is the tragic enormity that befell virtually the entire Jewish population of Gitter’s grandmother’s hometown of Rovno, Poland: some 25,000 souls, including her entire family, brutally murdered.

The play resonates with other disturbing realities.

When Gitter was asked to submit a play last spring for an EST/Youngbloods immigration-themed theater event, he decided to use his grandparents’ long-ago story, recognizing that “parallels exist to the experience of immigrants today.” He wanted contemporary young people — hence the use of the language of the millennials — to see those parallels, even the potential harmfulness of a leader perceived as a “clown, a figure of fun, a buffoon.” 

His brief play was intended to capture, he said, the “timelessness of people trying to live their lives, fall in love, against a backdrop of fear and oppression… about romance and youth and humor in a time of fear and anxiety and impending disaster. It’s about how small pockets of humanity are alive and beautiful, ridiculous and human, even in the darkest times.” 

It is also “a tribute to two young people, not knowing what lies ahead, and to any others who went through — or are going through — that kind of experience.”

Gitter credits the success of the first run to having developed the play under the “brilliant guidance of my director and frequent collaborator, Colette Robert,” and to the “great talent and great chemistry between Eli Gelb [Gitter wrote the play with him in mind] and Lucy DeVito [Danny DeVito’s and Rhea Perlman’s daughter].” 

The two actors, who, Gitter said, were “so enchanting, just incredible,” full of “deeply moving humanity,” will reprise their roles at NJ Rep.

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