More than devilish cruelty

A playwright takes the irony, ambiguity – and very dark wit – of Yiddish-language legend Isaac Bashevis Singer back in time.

bashevis 311 (photo credit: Aaron Epstein)
bashevis 311
(photo credit: Aaron Epstein)
In Mark Altman’s new play, the marriage-busting young seductress really is what generations of jilted wives have suspected: She’s literally been sent by the devil.
A demon in the guise of an attractive young housekeeper, the character is both a knowing joke and a source of theological debate, a flesh-and-blood symbol of the war between good and evil. She is, in other words, an effective distillation of the works of Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Yiddish-language author on whose writing the show is based.
Set in a small town in 16th-century Poland, the production unfolds largely in the home of Nosn and Royze Temerl, a middle-aged couple whose only marital disappointment has been their lack of children.
Their easy rapport is soon disrupted by Shifre Tsirl (Sarah Grace Wilson), a pretty young woman who materializes one day with a mysterious coach driver (Grant James Varjas). Unbeknownst to the married couple (Suzanne Toren and Paul Collins), the driver is actually the devil, disguised in human form. Using Shifre Tsirl as his proxy, the driver, Leybish, plans to break up their marriage, the next move in his ongoing battle with God.
Playing an unwitting role in later stages of the fight will be Moyshe Mekheles (Pierre Epstein), Nosn’s business rival and a widower looking to remarry. Almost obsessively pious, Moyshe Mekheles may not be as pure as he seems – a condition hinted at by Sin, the title of the new production.
‘IT’S THE STORY of how quickly Satan comes into their lives and just destroys them,” says Altman, who adapted the show from the original Yiddish. “I find it to be incredibly cruel – even the Devil couldn’t imagine a fate as cruel as what Singer describes.”
Culminating on Yom Kippur, the play indeed treats its characters less than kindly. But the show, which opened last Wednesday at the Baruch Performing Arts Center in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, also bears other hallmarks of Singer’s writing: irony, ambiguity and lots of dark wit. Mixing humorous one-liners with hints of the supernatural, the production somehow balances its shifting moods, injecting questions of faith and human nature into what, in other hands, might simply play as a domestic drama.
“My desire is that every person leaves thinking about a different angle or part of the story,” says Altman, a former associate artistic director at the Folksbiene, the National Yiddish Theatre.
The son of a Polish-born father and a mother with Russian roots, Altman brought strong linguistic qualifications to his adaptation of Singer, the only Yiddish-language writer to receive the Nobel Prize in literature. A survivor of the Lodz ghetto and the Buchenwald concentration camp, Altman’s father carried his faith with him to Boston, where he and his American-born wife raised their son with a mix of Yiddish and English.
“Whatever added to my genius was Yiddish,” the younger Altman jokes, though he says the language could also be a source of family discord.
“My mother was fluent in Yiddish – her parents spoke it, too – and there was some rivalry about this,” Altman recalls. “Any two people who speak Yiddish from two locations are immediately at odds, arguing about whose Yiddish is right and whose is wrong.”
Attracted to Singer’s writing because of its intellectual depth and richness, Altman also feels a personal kinship with the author, citing biographical similarities. “Singer was the son of the head of a religious court, and his work includes lots of references to the Talmud and Bible study and other Yiddish writers,” says Altman, who grew up in a highly observant household and studied in yeshivas for more than a dozen years.
Like Singer, Altman would eventually leave that world partly behind – though not, in his case, without discouragement from teachers.
“That was my first production,” he says, recalling a Purim play in which he acted as a teen. “Someone came over to me afterwards and said, ‘You were really a very good actor. I hope you don’t think about going into it.’”
Though he didn’t heed the advice, studying acting before turning to writing, the 49-year-old Altman continues to struggle with issues from yeshiva, grappling with questions of temptation, fate and free will in the context of the new play. Even the Devil, he says, “is going through a human story here,” raging at a detached God who, perhaps, just doesn’t care.
DESPITE ALTMAN’S loyalty to the material’s original themes, Sin also features several key changes. The Singer story’s title in English, The Unseen, is already a simplification of the Yiddish, which Altman translates roughly as “he who sees but is unseen,” a somewhat unwieldy formulation he feared could deflect attention from the piece’s wide-ranging appeal.
Perhaps more daringly, Altman also changed the story’s time frame, moving his production backwards in history from the turn of the 20th century. That decision, he says, stemmed from the way the Yiddish-speaking world is now often portrayed, usually in the shadow of the Holocaust, and through the prism of persecution and pogroms.
“Writing about something post-Holocaust is very daunting to me as the child of a survivor,” Altman says. “To me, it changed the universe.”
At the same time, he goes on, “I’m tired of the fact that every Yiddish thing you see since Fiddler on the Roof [uses] the same color scheme – you’re in the same place, always with the threat of a pogrom tomorrow or the question of when these people are going to move to America.”
Set centuries earlier, Sin captures a period that most people overlook, paying tribute to a multi-dimensional world that produced a vibrant, complicated Jewish culture. Troubled by questions about love, loyalty and goodness, the show’s characters are fully realized, not just future martyrs or saints.
That said, their fate is not a happy one – and certainly not conventional by the standards of the stage.
“I was expecting somebody to tell me that it has to have a happy ending,” Altman says, “but my director [Kent Paul] and I thought about it, and decided it would be untrue to Singer. I think he felt that the human condition is unfair, and that’s something I basically agree with.”
It’s a situation that doesn’t make for tidy resolutions, but one that’s strikingly summarized by the end of the play.
“Eugene O’Neill said that until recently, every story was really aboutman and God, and that nowadays every story is about man without God,”Altman says.
As for Singer’s characters, they’re “sticking with this God that youcan’t see or hear,” Altman says. “The difficulty is that all they haveis the Law.”