by Francine Zorn Trachtenberg
Last weekend I saw two Jewish performances: Judy Gold’s, Mommy Queerest (at Theater J through New Year’s weekend) and the Coen brothers’, A Serious Man (presently at the AFI in Silver Spring). I made some assumptions before seeing them that proved none too accurate. By its title, Judy Gold announces her play is unlikely to be about a stereotypical Jewish family. The double entendre of “queer” – gay as well as out of the ordinary – sets up the audience for an evening of unconventional fare. Likewise, by the title, the Coen brothers position their film to be about a solemn, earnest person – perhaps a stereotypical bookish, maybe even pious Jew. I was prepared for the first to be about a dysfunctional household and the second to be a sardonic take on mid-Western suburban life.
Both delve into the childhood of Jewish teens during the late 1950s and 60s. Both opine on their parents in categorical terms: neither set understands its prodigy. Similarities of subject matter exist between Gold and the Coens, but there is little symmetry in their perceptions or interpretations of growing up Jewish.
These artists are pros: the writing of both scripts is tight, the staging compact. Rhythm and moods are established early on through jingles and period videos for Gold and parable and the shtetl’s folklore for the Coens. But in the end, one performance is uplifting and the other is a downer.
Judy Gold’s energy is infectious and her optimism about life is contagious. At 6’3” she is a wonder-woman: a gay, mother of two, stand-up comedian with the subject matter of a Seinfeld character – nothingness rising to a higher plane. She is worn-down by her mother whose difficulties with aging classically sandwich Gold between the generations of caretaker for the young and the elderly. Everyone wants her attention and she has little time (or space) for herself. Nothing would make this lady happier than a second bathroom! She kvetches, for sure, but why not? The situations she encounters couldn’t be made up – life is better material than fiction. She comes out of it a winner.
Now for the Coen brothers: what are they thinking? Did they not meet a single redeeming person in their entire childhood? It is far too easy to ridicule the rabbinate (three generations) and the professoriate (tenured and untenured), to portray a town full of people from Chelm. In the end, we have the story of Job, of a burdened, unsuspecting, long-suffering soul whose life is filled with one misfortune after another. His children are doped-up and shrill; his wife is prissy, on one side of his house, the neighbor is the classic anti-Semite and on the other side – well, best to say she is a Jewish boy’s fantasy. Who in this movie has depth, is real? Maybe it is the protagonist’s brother, a foil to everyone elses’ travails, but as broad-shouldered as Arthur is, he can’t carry the weight of this film alone. We have the death of religion, the family and of the academy. Tornadoes, cancer, automobile accidents, bribery and drugs deluge the characters. There is nothing to take away from their lives – no character trait worth emulating. The story sinks below even Woody Allen’s contempt for his Jewish heritage.
Judy Gold’s, Mommy Queerest is a healthy series of retorts on her life; the Coen brothers, A Serious Man is an unforgiving series of put-downs. In the end, I say, “Go girl, go!”
Ms. Trachtenberg is the immediate past-president of the Washington DC Jewish Community Center. She is a former Senior Vice President at WETA and adjunct faculty member at the George Washington University’s art department, teaching the history of photography.