The People in the Picture

  • Our critic's rating:
    April 1, 2011

    Tulis McCall
    29 Apr 2011)

    I'll tell you one thing for certain – there is a ton of talent in this show. Too bad they don't have a show to match their skills.

    Bubbie (Donna Murphy) was in a Yiddish acting troupe in Poland before and during World War II that produced plays as well as films. More often than not, these were adaptations of classics that were written by Bubbie, who was Raisel back then, in which the male leads were transformed into female leads. The company was a hit with everyone, including the powers in Hollywood who came calling.

    About the same time as the call from Hollywood came the billet-deux from Hitler. The departure of Chaim Bradovsky (Christopher Innvar) the company's director, for Hollywood came just as Hitler was tightening his noose. The Jews were being removed to ghettos. So the company entertained there. Bradovsky 's failure to return caused a kafuffle professionally, and there was the additional problem of Raisel's pregnancy. The first was handled democratically, the second was solved when Moishe Rosenwald (Aleander Gemignani) the company's only gay member, offered to marry Raisel.

    All of this is told and sung by the people in the picture who come alive for Bubbie's granddaughter Jenny (Rachel Reshef.) They have always been alive to Bubbie but when her granddaughter sees them as well, she knows she has an ally. Bubbie needs an ally because the relationship she has with her daughter, Red (Nicole Parker) is chilling. This is the daughter who was born in the ghetto. And this is the daughter Raisel gave up to save her and then reclaimed years later, taking Red from the only people she had known as parents.

    This factoid is the very center of the story, but one that the writer chooses to merely hint at until half way through the second act. Prior to this we see only the company telling their tale, with Murphy transforming between septuagenarian Bubbie and a young Raisel (and she does this beautifully) over and over again. While the stories are pleasant, poignant, and often funny, they contain no gravitas. These are song and dance people in a virtual prison, but for the most part we see only the veneer. And in the "present" we see only Bubbie's struggle with her daughter, without knowing its cause, and her losing battle with dementia.

    Because the writer withholds the critical nugget of Red's reclamation from us, we get lost in the generalities of this story. Life is a struggle, the Jews were treated abdominally, but because of the People In The Picture, one little girl will remember that they existed. Jenny will carry on the tradition of keeping these people alive. We will know they passed our way.

    But the moment when Raisel comes to reclaim her daughter, though poorly written, is riveting. The moment is callous and passionate. A mother takes back her daughter, the only reason she has to live, and in doing so destroys a family and breaks her child's heart. It is a break the mother does not acknowledge for years. Now that is a story.

    Why the author turned away from what was staring her in the face is a mystery. She took the road more traveled, and that made all the difference. What could have been a gut-wrencher is only pablum.

    Best line in the show: "I believe that if a woman surrounds herself with the proper wardrobe and makeup, she need never go to an Elder Hotel." Joyce Van Patten hits that one straight down the middle. It has nothing to do with anything, but a fabulous line is a fabulous line.

    What the popular press said...

    "Without Ms. Murphy this well-meaning Roundabout Theater Company production ... would be thin treacle indeed."
    Ben Brantley for NY Times

    "Slight and sentimental."
    Joe Dziemianowicz for NY Daily News

    "Donna Murphy is a Tony winner who's lit up the likes of "Passion" and "Wonderful Town." Here, she works tirelessly to perform CPR on a DOA show."
    Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post

    "There are groaners galore in 'Picture'"
    Jeremy Gerald for Bloomberg

    "Too big, too ornate, just too much."
    David Sheward for Back Stage

    "Without freshness, wit or dramatic imagination, it's not much of a musical."
    Robert Feldberg for The Record

    "A resounding thud."
    Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey

    "An odd duck."
    David Rooney for The Hollywood Reporter

    "it's a long evening filled with threadbare melodramatic machinations."
    Steven Suskin for Variety

    External links to full reviews from popular press...

    New York Times - New York Daily News - New York Post - Bloomberg - Back Stage - The Record - Newsroom Jersey - Hollywood Reporter - Variety