Our holiday season may be coming to a close but “Tom Dugan season,” in what’s fast becoming a regular feature of South Florida theater, lives on. The popular, LA-based playwright/actor who critics describe as “a national treasure” is best known for his breakout, multi-award-winning, one-man show Wiesenthal, where he portrays the life and ideals of the world’s most famous Nazi hunter. I saw Dugan play the lead in an awe-inspiring performance years ago. But you can still catch the play periodically (last seen at Miami’s GableStage, featuring David Kwiat, in 2019). And it’s coming up next month at the Pompano Beach Cultural Center, with Dugan again in the starring role. (Wiesenthal’s mission lives on, as well, through The Simon Wiesenthal Center, dedicated to fighting “the ever-morphing scourge of antisemitism” in the US and abroad.)
During the pandemic, the playwright – who’d made his name with a critically acclaimed line-up of one-man shows – decided to leave his comfort zone and write his first multi-character play, a dramedy. Quirky, funny and frighteningly original Cemetery Pub was inspired by his personal background of growing up in a large, Irish-Catholic family. I consider myself lucky to have caught the play’s East Coast debut presented by Pigs Do Fly Productions at Empire Stage last March.
More recently, some of you may have been wowed by Dugan’s “brilliant” one-woman biopic about the life of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in which Kait Haire starred in Tell Him It’s Jackie for only three days in October at the Delray Beach Playhouse. Happily, you’ll have a lot more time to catch Delray Beach Playhouse’s Off-Broadway Series East Coast premiere of TEVYE IN NEW YORK! by Tom Dugan, starring Tom Dugan, and playing now through January 7, 2024.
If you haven’t noticed by now, Dugan tends to specialize in Jewish and Irish characters. He is of Irish descent, but has a long-lasting relationship and affinity with Jewish people and causes – especially Shalom Aleichem’s (often referred to as “the Jewish Mark Twain”) iconic character of Tevye the Milkman of Fiddler on the Roof fame. Starting as far back as high school. In a “Note from the Playwright,” Dugan says playing Tevye in Fiddler at Rahway High School, New Jersey, in 1978, gave him the acting bug that set him on a lifelong path in theater.
Renowned for his meticulous research in presenting famous historical figures, he did no less for Tevye, the much-loved fictional everyman. Dugan based his admittedly somewhat original Fiddler sequel on family characteristics and facts gleaned not only from the famous musical and film (you’ll surely catch phrases from favorite songs) but also from the Yiddish author’s original works, including Tevye’sDaughters, Motl the Cantor’s Son, and The Railroad Stories. Most telling, the playwright requested, and received, the blessing of the author’s heirs at The Shalom Aleichem Family Foundation.
Let me alert you upfront. (If you’ve attended Tom Dugan plays before, you likely expect this already.) Dugan’s “one-man show” quickly turns into a multi-layered and multi-persona expose by a storyteller so gifted, you literally “see” the colorful cast of characters Tevye points to in the present, and will fully picture all the dramatic incidents he talks about from his past. You’ll laugh with him at the technical wonders of the early 20th century, cry at some Old World shocks and plot twists you never saw coming, and hold your breath – along with Grandpa Tevye – waiting to hear if his almost-Bar-Mitzvah-age (13) grandson, Daniel, was cleared for entry at Ellis Island. All I’ll say, for now, is that fanatic baseball-team fandom appears to cross borders … and might even save the day!
As soon as we enter the theater, we’re immersed in the heavily Jewish immigrant neighborhood of Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the early 1900s. Waiting for the show to begin, we enjoy a medley of klezmer tunes while facing an onstage row house with signage placing it at the corner Orchard Street and Delancey. There’s a wooden pushcart on the sidewalk in front, hanging laundry and wicker baskets to one side, a streetlight pole and newfangled payphone box (booths must have come later) at the other. For our play’s greenhorn, the simple telephone is “A miracle of miracles!” Credit goes to technical director Andre Lancaster, sound designer Steve Shaw, and to Cindi Taylor for authentic-looking set design crafted by master carpenter Jeff Davis and his team of Christian Taylor and Richard Forbes. If I sat closer, I might even have smelled an open jar of pickles!
Suddenly there’s Tevye – in workman’s cap and apron with tzitzit (religious fringes) flying – bounding past me down the aisle, ringing a bell like a town crier, and calling out “Happy Fourth of July.” “Follow me to Orchard and Delancey,” he adds as he ascends the stage to stand behind his cart which offers fresh pickles but, sadly, no ice cream. Because “Maria has the key to the ice box with the ice cream that’s chained to a fence next to the fresh fish guy” and she’d gone with his daughters to Ellis Island to welcome Tzeitel’s (the eldest’s) husband and son who finally arrived from Russia. (There’s a surprise revelation here that’s not revealed till almost the end, and you won’t hear it from me. either.) But we will hear Tevye who, while waiting for the day’s parade celebrating immigrants to pass his humble corner, lets us know: “I can talk; it’s what I do best. It’s free. In America all speech is free.”
Tevye had practically adopted the Italian girl Maria whom his youngest twin daughter Taybele, aka “Abel” (dressed as, and named as, a boy so she could make the overseas passage safely with her dad) had taken a fancy to … in more ways than one. (Maria’s family ousted her when she refused an arranged marriage, prompting Tevye to reflect that if he’d rejected his children for marrying for love, he wouldn’t have any family left!) The tomboy twin, Abel, decides to keep her adopted male identity even after stepping ashore because it’s easier to live as a man. She even manages to prove her point by heroically rescuing women from the notorious Triangle Factory fire of 1911, including, lastly, her estranged twin Beilka.
But I’m getting ahead of myself by revealing what comes later in Tevye’s tale. Though this plot line does serve as a perfect example of how Dugan manages to mesh NYC history and societal issues with striking vignettes involving Shalom Aleichem characters.
Tevye’s warm, loquacious and self-deprecating humor shines from the minute he welcomes us into his world. He even includes us in his vivid description of his tiny Russian shtetl by pointing to wide swaths of the audience, in turn, to represent various, all larger-sized, adjacent villages. Culminating with his pointing to a woman seated in front and saying his Anatevka would be represented by her one shoe.
But no matter, because it’s now 1914, and Tevye is in America celebrating his new home’s 138th Birthday. And his proudest moment – the day he and his family became US citizens. In true American-style promotion, Tevye proceeds to tease us with a “Big Announcement” banner at his right that he’ll only unfurl during the height of the Independence Day Parade when about 10,000 people – including Jewish celebrities like Harry Houdini, and ending with President Woodrow Wilson – will march past his spot on the sidewalk and the advertisement for his newest enterprise.
But first he reflects on the fate of his three eldest daughters. Very graphically. He blows up a red balloon, then abruptly releases it without tying the knot, watching it zip through the air and fly away – “just like my third daughter, Chava the troublemaker, who married outside the faith.”
Nevertheless, he refuses to dwell on past disappointments on this special day. So he next picks up a cardboard tube to serve as bullhorn, calling his multi-ethnic neighbors to “join our little shtetl” – from Mrs. Murphy across the street to Mr. Puccini from Mulberry Street. Inviting them all to have a pickle, though the promised free scoop of ice cream (“any flavor as long as it’s vanilla”) will have to wait. Frequent, sad-sack appearances are made by his careless and klutzy printer friend who hawks everything under the sun (today it’s fireworks, and needless to say, he practically blows himself up several times).
The reversal of Tevye’s long stream of bad luck in the old country began with a charitable good deed. Despite his and his loyal horse’s utter exhaustion after a long, fruitless day hawking wood, he gives a stranded old lady a ride on his rickety cart – all the way to Bobrick. Turns out a feast awaits her arrival by her anxious, wealthy family. And Tevye’s kindness is amply rewarded with a banquet for his daughter’s tenth birthday (that same day) along with a dairy cow and 37 rubles. When his wise wife Golda convinces him to give up on “Tevye the Wood King” in favor of “Tevye the Dairyman,” his business suddenly flourishes. There’s a subplot of a witch’s curse and tying red ribbons on children to ward off the evil eye, but I’ll leave this part for you to discover in Tevye’s own colorful words.
As you can imagine, with so many stories, characters and plot lines to convey, it’s an incredible challenge for a single actor to stay in top form for some 85 minutes straight with no intermission (you hardly notice the time fly by and are almost shocked when it’s over, still wanting more). Director JP Hubbell describes his experience of working with Tom on Tevye as “an absolute pleasure,” and it shows. The production was flawless and you, too, can enjoy the fruits of his “work with an artist at the top of his game.”
You might even decide to jumpstart some Lower East Side nostalgia, like I did, with an appetizing pre-show, boxed lunch catered by TooJay’s Deli. Check out their popular Lunch Box Matinee options at the Delray Beach Playhouse website though, in my case, nothing but a super-loaded corned beef on rye with deli pickle, coleslaw, black-and-white cookie, and Diet Coke would do. Best of all, you can enjoy your relaxed lunch not in a cramped tenement kitchen but in the theater’s elegant cabaret room, whose round tables for four feature real fabric tablecloths and spectacular waterfront, Lake Ida views. (Lakeside patio tables and benches for all patrons to enjoy before the show are available as well.)
TEVYE IN NEW YORK! written and performed by Tom Dugan, is playing through January 7th at the Delray Beach Playhouse, 950 NW 9th Street, Delray Beach 33444.
Hailing from New York City, but now a long-time resident of Fort Lauderdale, Mindy Leaf has worked as a professional writer and editor for over 30 years. Her byline has appeared in both national and international magazines, including Omni, New York Magazine, Showboats International, Power & Motoryacht, Yachting, Fine Dining, Jewish Monthly and various literary publications. She is the author of “The Working Mom's Handbook” and childrens book, “Things That Count!” and was series editor for Commuter Press. She’s worked as a restaurant critic for Florida's MyCity magazine network and was senior staff writer at Artblend, an international fine-art quarterly. She particularly enjoyed writing a weekly opinion blog for LA’s Jewish Journal called “The Examined Life.” Mindy has headed a bi-
weekly theater column at Around Town for over a decade and is delighted to also contribute her reviews to South Florida Theater Magazine.