(This is Jerry's review of the Arts Club production from 2006--when Antony Holland was only 86.)
Schmaltz is one of those great Yiddish words for all occasions. It literally means chicken fat but figuratively describes anything overly sentimental or maudlin.
I was sure I was in for a schmaltzy evening at Tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom’s stage version of his best-selling book. After all, book and play describe Albom’s education at the hands of his former favourite university professor who is dying of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). In showing Mitch how to die, the inspirational Morrie also teaches him how to live. Wise saws would no doubt abound and tears would flow. We’d hear the uncommon wisdom of the common man. Everything I Need to Know I Learned Not in Kindergarten, but at Morrie’s Bedside.
I’m delighted to admit that my cynicism was proven almost all wrong. Bill Millerd’s understated, lo-cal production keeps the schmaltz to a minimum and lets Warren Kimmel (Mitch) and especially Antony Holland (Morrie) tell a warm, affecting story.
A bare stage represents Morrie’s Massachusetts home where Mitch reconnects with his ex-prof, visiting every Tuesday during Morrie’s illness. A few simple set pieces revolve on and off as Morrie’s condition deteriorates: a chair, a wheelchair, a bed. Props are mostly mimed. When Mitch’s wife joins them, her presence is indicated by an empty chair. Our attention is focused entirely upon the two actors.
Mitch, who tells the story, is something of a boomer cliché. An idealistic kid at Brandeis in the Sixties, where Morrie became his guru, he lost touch with Morrie and with himself after graduation, drifting into the pseudo-success of bourgeois life as a workaholic sportswriter with a house in the suburbs. Kimmel plays uptight, emotionally constipated Mitch with a straightforward honesty that smoothes over most of the contrivances of his conflicted character. He manages even the inevitable dam-bursting scene with a restraint that garners Mitch more sympathy than he probably deserves.
But Morrie is the centrepiece. Though his wisdom never seems terribly profound—he advocates honesty, hugging and crying—local acting legend Holland infuses him with a quiet dignity and mischievous humour that makes what he says much less important than how he says it. Holland also charts Morrie’s gradual debilitation and death in beautiful detail. At 86, Holland has lost some of his own physical robustness but none of his great comic timing and delivery. Have you found someone to share your life with, Morrie asks. Yes, says Mitch, a very nice woman. Holland pauses, then, dryly: “Have you named her?”
All the good work can’t entirely overcome the script’s schmaltz factor or philosophical banality. When Morrie vows, “I’m going to live until I die,” a woman near me blurted out, “And not one minute longer!”