A Majority of One by Leonard Spigelgass was originally produced on Broadway in 1959, with Gertrude Berg playing Mrs. Jacoby, a Jewish widow living in Brooklyn. The play ran for 551 performances at the Schubert Theatre, garnering Ms. Berg a Tony. At that time, the casting of Cedric Hardwick as Mr. Asano, a Japanese widower and highly successful businessman, was questionable. Fast forward to West Coast Jewish Theatre’s revival at the Pico Playhouse, and once again the casting of one of the lead characters is questionable.
Mrs. Jacoby’s (Paula Prentiss) son-in-law Jerry, well played by Ross Benjamin (a dead ringer for his dad Richard), has been appointed to the Foreign Service by the U.S. State Department to be one of the representatives in trade agreement negotiations with Japan. He and his wife, Alice (nicely played by Anya Profumo), convince mom to relocate with them.
Jacoby and Koichi Asano (Sab Shimono) meet aboard a ship headed for Tokyo, and develop an unexpected attraction that ultimately transcends their deep-seeded hatred and prejudice going back to World War II, during which time both of them lost children. The play stands as a metaphor for the healing that must take place between two countries after battles have been fought. An appropriate tag line is: can a simple New York Jewish girl find love with a Zen Buddhist millionaire from Tokyo? As the story unfolds, we see the obstacles to this odd relationship that tries to bridge the gap between two distinctly different cultures.
Paula Prentiss has enjoyed a long, impressive stage and film career, and it must have been a pleasure for her to work with her talented son, Ross. Sadly, despite what was truly a valiant effort opening night, her performance in this most challenging role was not up to par. Ultimately, however, what is on stage is the responsibility of the director and in this regard, director Salome Jens, while successfully guiding the rest of the ensemble in developing their characters, failed in eliciting a credible performance from Prentiss.
Another directorial fuzziness was seen in the use of props. This is a realistic play, almost bordering on “kitchen sink drama,” so using a combination of real props and pretend props, such as pouring make-believe sake into an actual cup, or lighting invisible candles with an imaginary match with real candlesticks in full view, or eating unseen food off of actual plates, is just plain sloppy directing that made the actors look silly. You can’t have it both ways. It’s either representational or naturalistic, and in this play in particular, which is so steeped in reality, it was jarring to see the two contradictory styles melded together.
It should be noted, however, that despite being an imperfect production, the still-timely ideas expressed in Spigelgass’ script, the creative set, light, and sound design, and the excellent performances given by the ensemble (including Cheryl David, Edison Park, Fay Kato, Tomo Kawaguchi, and Larry Parrish), make A Majority of One a worthwhile evening of theatre. Sab Shimono’s riveting, highly polished performance is the centerpiece of the show, and worth the price of admission alone.
The important, award-winning West Coast Jewish Theatre has produced some fine productions, including Zero Hour and the wonderful musical The Smartest Man in the World, and certainly deserves continued support.
A Majority of One runs Thursdays-Sundays through December 14, 2008 at the Pico Playhouse, 10508 West Pico Boulevard, L.A. 90064. Tickets: $35, seniors: $32. Reservations: 800.838.3006 or visit westcoastjewishtheatre.org.