The People in the Picture
nytheatre.com review by Andrew Rothkin
May 4, 2011
Entering the Neil Simon Theatre in late 1996, I was as excited to see The King and I as watching some '70s rerun. Don't get me wrong; I love a good rerun…but I suppose I expected a shiny, glossy spectacle bursting with Siamese grins and Siamese jazz-hands. I certainly wasn't expecting anything resembling real life. What I got was so much more. The entire production was excellent, filled with humanity and great heart—and most of that heart was brought to life by the radiant Donna Murphy. She lived and breathed her Anna with nuance and layers of depth, and when emotion filled her being—as honestly and as fully as the best of the Method actors—her jaw simply dropped and her emotions infused the air…atop the sweetest, most glorious of sounds. I was an instant fan for life.
I have followed her career ever since—in film, on TV and on stage (most notably for her turn as Ruth Sherwood in Wonderful Town). So when I heard the two time Tony winner was coming back to Broadway, I knew I had to see her.
Indeed, Murphy's portrayal of Raisel in The People in the Picture is nothing less than extraordinary.
Iris Rainer Dart, book writer and lyricist (most famous for penning Beaches), weaves an unusually smart, witty story which, in part, displays universal human truths versus what we choose to hide; she effortlessly guides us back and forth, from New York City (1977) to Warsaw, Poland (1935-1946), easily intertwining heartfelt drama with gut-busting laughs, along with some beautiful music (composed by the excellent Mike Stoller and Artie Butler).
In Poland in the 1930s, Raisel performs as part of a Yiddish theatre troupe—and there seems to be no subject that can't be made into hilarity through Raisel's outrageous mind. In these flashbacks to Poland, Murphy shares the stage with some truly wonderful performers, especially her fellow troupe members, including Christopher Innvar, who plays the man she loved, and Alexander Gemignani, who plays the man she married. The biggest laughs are repeatedly due to Chip Zien and Lewis J. Stadlen, whose Pinsker and Krinsky shine like a Yiddish Abbott and Costello. Other standouts include Megan Reinking, Hal Robinson, the adorable 9½-year-old Andie Mechanic, and Joyce Van Patten as Chayesel, the delightful been-there, done-that Diva of the Yiddish theatre world. As the Poland segments near World War II, there is less for Raisel to make light of—but despite some heartbreaking moments, writer Dart and director Leonard Foglia always supply a laugh or a tender gesture…or whatever it is that we need.
Life in NYC, 1977, has its own ups and downs, its own joys and sorrows. Raisel—now generally called Bubby (the Yiddish word for grandmother)—tells her granddaughter about the days of old, explaining who Pinsker and Krinsky were, and Chayesel, and the rest of her funny old troupe. Jenny, played with great intelligence, sincerity, and charm by the lovely 10-year-old Rachel Resheff, soaks up every word her Bubby tells her…and the people in the picture—those long lost thespians of yore—are as real and alive to Jenny as they are to her Bubby, who knew them. Between Bubby and Jenny stands Red, daughter and mother, respectively; the breadwinner of the family and the one who makes the tough decisions. As played by Nicole Parker, Red is filled with many conflicting emotions. She shows great vulnerability and great strength, and her relationship with her mother is believable and complex.
The two distinct times and places intersect and unfold upon each other, sometimes in surprising ways.
Foglia does a lovely, solid job in staging and pacing the piece in and around Riccardo Hernandez's contemplative set. While James F. Ingalls's lighting, Dan Moses Schreier's sound design,and Elaine J. McCarthy's effective projections often help to convey location and era of events, it is Murphy, instantly changing her posture, voice, and persona, who most effectively lets us know where and when we are.
Ann Hould-Ward's costume design and Paul Huntley's wig/hair design are strong, and I really enjoyed Andy Blankenbuehler's musical staging, which is fun and filled with surprises. Indeed, all the performers and designers alike have done an excellent job.
Although I can't promise that The People in the Picture will hit everyone as profoundly as it hit me, I highly recommend this beautifully framed, beautifully captured work of art. And if you have your own Bubby or Zadie—get 'em to Studio 54 now!