I’m convinced Donna Murphy can do anything. I firmly believe this from having seen her past performances, however, the versatility of the two-time Tony winner never fails to surprises me every time. That she manages to captivate, entrance and devastate as Raisel (or Bubbie) in the otherwise forgettable The People in the Picture, now playing at Studio 54, is only a testament to her immense talent. Wearing a grey wig, glasses and a house dress, Ms. Murphy (who is one of the most gorgeous women on Broadway) is utterly convincing as a Polish immigrant and Jewish grandmother, a woman who adores her granddaughter and desires to pass down to her the truth of the Holocaust and her life before, during and after Nazi oppression and depravity, but whose health and mental faculties are fading fast.
Murphy alternates between the younger and older version of her character as fragments of her story are told. The transformation is stunning; the most subtle and nuanced shift in body language add or subtract fifty years in the blink of an eye. Murphy is also playing an actress and has the opportunity to partake in Yiddish theatre sketches and send-ups of old films, including one memorable scene as a Dybbuk. Ultimately Murphy is forced to rise above her material and carry the entire show on those thin shoulders. It’s not an easy burden to bear, but she does so with absolute professionalism and grace.
The idea behind The People in the Picture is admirable: a multi-generational family dealing with their internal troubles while stressing the importance of cultural identity and historic legacy. The ideas and ideals are so strong and ambition that it makes the show’s failure all the more disappointing. Iris Rainer Dart’s script is laden with cliches, hammy dialogue and is chock full of cheap sentiment. Raisel’s memories and recollections bring to life the title characters, theatre folk from her past. There is a lot of shtick, fragmented storytelling and an overall lack of clarity. (The memories from the picture: are they merely memories or are they ghosts haunting Raisel? If memories, how does Raisel’s long lost lover bring her closure?)
The score, with music by Mike Stoller or Artie Butler, is mostly unmemorable; an incohesive mix of klezmer and pastiche. Even worse are Dart’s lyrics, which are so rote and poorly rhymed they at times feel like parody. The nadir comes in the soliloquy “Red’s Dilemma”, in which the daughter expresses mixed emotions whether or not she should put her mother in a nursing home. However, there is one lovely song in the second act, “Selective Memory,” as Raisel sings to the specter of her long lost love Chaim about the strong memories she still holds onto. It provided the most genuine moment of emotion in the entire score.
Nicole Parker, who possesses a captivating voice, presents a woman facing the difficulties of becoming a parent to her own parent. Rachel Resneff as Maisel’s granddaughter, is supposed to be wise beyond her years but comes off completely disingenuous. The title characters, of Raisel’s Warsaw Gang (and supporting cast), are all archetypes and stereotypes; broadly drawn figures of larger-than-life theatre people. Alexander Gemignani and Christopher Innvar play the men of Raisel’s life, but have little to work with. Hal Robinson plays the dying impresario while Joyce Van Patten gets the one genuinely funny line in the whole show as an aging diva. Lewis J. Stadlen and Chip Zien play off each other like old vaudevillians. They are all wonderful performers, but unable to rise above the material as Murphy does so effortlessly.
The musical’s second act is better than the abysmal first, most specifically for the final twenty minutes in which Raisel’s secrets are finally revealed. At the height of Nazi power and out of fear for her safety, Raisel gave up her daughter to save her life, then after the war took her back from the barren Gentile couple who took her in. The resentment and bitterness has existed between them, unspoken, ever since. This inevitable “truth will set you free” revelation is where the audience is finally told the truth in its entirety. Afterward comes the denouement and requisite deathbed scene. Even those around me who were suppressing laughter throughout much of the first act were getting choked up. This was The People in the Picture at its most compelling, but it was simply not enough.