jakub | April 10, 2024

AMERICAN THEATRE | ‘The Last Yiddish Speaker’: Who They’ll Come for First

Stephanie Satie, Kaitlyn Zion, and Dan Hodge in “The Last Yiddish Speaker” at InterAct Theatre Company. (Photo by Seth Rozin)

When Seth Rozin, founding artistic director of Philadelphia’s InterAct Theatre Company, first read Deborah Zoe Laufer’s The Last Yiddish Speaker about a year ago, “I immediately thought it was important,” he recalled recently. “It was timely, a really solid play that has a great story with characters that anyone could care about, very relatable, but also with some unique magic.”

Timely indeed: The drama is set in a near-future dystopian Christian Nationalist America in which the coup of Jan. 6, 2021, succeeded, and ethnic, ideological, and religious conformity is enforced at gunpoint. Its characters are a Jewish father and daughter passing as Christian; the daughter’s initially unsuspecting boyfriend; and a mysterious older woman who embodies a millennium of Jewish history and tradition.

World events have since given the play’s conflicts an even sharper edge. With the war in Gaza, increasing public expressions of antisemitism, and the prospect of a second Donald Trump presidency, The Last Yiddish Speaker is “much more than timely, but frankly urgent,” said Rozin, who also directs. “It’s a vital play, a necessary play, to remind us of the stakes when outside events poke at our biases and push people into a corner.”

Deborah Zoe Laufer.

A Lucille Lortel Theatre commission and a finalist in the Jewish Plays Project, The Last Yiddish Theatre’s InterAct bow (March 29-April 21) is the first in a National New Play Network rolling world premiere. Additional productions are planned at Oregon Contemporary Theatre in Eugene (Oct. 23-Nov. 10) and Theatre Lab at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton (Oct. 23-Nov. 17), where Laufer herself will direct.

“I like to write about what it’s like to live in the time we’re in, and the time we’re in is shifting so quickly,” said Laufer, who lives in Mount Kisko, N.Y. “I keep saying history rewrites my plays faster than I can.”

The Last Yiddish Speaker takes place in the fictional upstate New York town of Granville in 2029, in a world where Jews, gays, and others deemed outsiders are banished or killed, dissent is punished, and a recent edict forbids women from attending college. A frustrated Sarah, now known as Mary, and her more circumspect father, Paul, are at loggerheads about how to survive without losing themselves in the process.

The play’s surveillance state calls to mind George Orwell’s 1984, as well as the totalitarian regimes Orwell both satirized and prefigured. Laufer’s counterfactual premise also evokes Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here and two other novels later adapted for television: Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, in which the isolationist Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 and ushers in fascism, and Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which imagines an America conquered by the Axis powers of World War II.

Laufer’s 90-minute one-act is among a spate of recent dramas and musicals dealing with antisemitism and the varieties of Jewish response, some epic in scale. Broadway has featured Tom Stoppard’s semi-autobiographical Leopoldstadt, Joshua Harmon’s Prayer for the French Republic, and Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman’s Harmony: A New Musical, a tribute to the 1920s and ’30s German sextet the Comedian Harmonists.

Laufer mentions another similarly themed play, The Ally, by Itamar Moses, who happens to be a member of one of her three writing groups. Premiered this winter by New York’s Public Theater, The Ally puts a progressive Jewish professor in the crosshairs of disputation about the Middle East.

But Laufer (whose plays include End Days, Leveling Up, and Informed Consent) said that the initial spark for The Last Yiddish Speaker wasn’t political at all: It was a podcast she heard about a Hawaiian bird on the verge of extinction.

“I was so moved by being the last one who speaks your language, or being the last of your species,” Laufer said. As with stories of “people being lost in space, it’s the loneliest feeling in the world.”

Laufer said her plays tend to emerge “from four or five things that I’ve been obsessing about.” In the case of The Last Yiddish Speaker, which she called “probably the least hopeful” of her works, those obsessions did include some political concerns, namely rising antisemitism and the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. The Last Yiddish Speaker is also a response to her first professional production, The Last Schwartz, about the Jewish “fear of assimilation and how it tears families apart.   

“There is a criticism of Jews in the heart of that play,” said Laufer, who was raised in rural upstate New York “with a certain paranoia” about being Jewish. “I’ve evolved in the last 20 years. I feel more protective of my Judaism.”

Stephanie Satie and Kaitlyn Zion in “The Last Yiddish Speaker” at InterAct Theatre Company. (Photo by Seth Rozin)

Trained as an actor at SUNY Purchase, Laufer also has worked as a standup comedian and a director. At a conference in Missoula, Mont., Marsha Norman read a play Laufer submitted and told her, “You know, you’re a playwright.” On her invitation, Laufer enrolled at the Juilliard School, where Norman headed the playwriting program. “It was the most amazing thing,” Laufer said, “and it changed my life.”

Laufer’s most successful play to date, End Days, inspired in part by 9/11, is a comic family drama featuring a collision between science and religion, as incarnated by the physicist Stephen Hawking and Jesus. It has received about 90 productions, she said.

In an earlier version of The Last Yiddish Speaker, the eponymous character of Aunt Chava was a more realistic figure—a woman in her 90s. A writer colleague told Laufer, “There’s something missing—it’s not a Deborah Laufer play.” Now Chava is 1,000 years old, a magical element that, to Laufer, makes the show “reverberate in a much larger way.” InterAct’s Chava is portrayed by Stephanie Satie, who coincidentally played Tevye’s daughter Chava in the original Broadway national tour of Fiddler on the Roof.

Citing Rozin’s directorial input, Laufer described The Last Yiddish Speaker as comprising three love stories: “between a father and daughter, a boy and a girl, and then this old woman who’s passing on Judaism to this young woman.”

Continued Laufer, “I really see this play as Our Town—if there were a really dark backdrop. There still needs to be all the innocence and simplicity and joys and problems of living in a small town. All those things have to be just as alive in the play as the backdrop, which is so dark. I keep saying, ‘It’s Grover’s Corners—let’s not lose that. It’s a small town and it’s young love.’ The sweetness of these relationships really needs to be emphasized.” In the InterAct production, Gabriel Elmore’s performance as John, the boyfriend torn between allegiance to the new world order and his love for the teenager he knows as Mary, captures that sweetness.

Laufer’s play poses a question, Rozin said, that isn’t limited to Jews, but that defines Jewish history: “The constant question that we ask at every place that we’ve settled is, ‘Do we fight, do we flee, or do we assimilate in order to survive?’” Each option entails some loss. The Last Yiddish Speaker, he said, is both a reminder “of what has been given up already” and, through the character of Chava, a suggestion of a “magical opportunity of reconnecting with your history, your culture, your language.”

“One of the things I like about this play is that it’s very specific,” Rozin said. But, like The Diary of Anne Frank, he said, it “comments on the larger issues of humanity and human nature. While it uses the specific history of Judaism, of the Jewish people and Jewish culture, the play is really about the challenges of living together in community going forward.”

Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia.

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