How fitting that the Jewish Theatre San Francisco opens its final, 34th season with “In the Maze of Our Own Lives,” a world premiere written and directed by co-founder Corey Fischer, and that the topic is an earlier (and much shorter-lived, at eight years) company, New York’s legendary Group Theatre.
Like the influential Group, founded by Lee Strasberg, Harold Clurman and Cheryl Crawford in the 1930s, TJT also was founded by a trio: Fischer, Naomi Newman and Albert Greenberg.
The Group pioneered a “new American theater” that focused on naturalistic acting a la Stanislavsky, and socially relevant plays espousing progressive ideals.
The company of about 30 included Yiddish theater stars Stella Adler, her brother Luther Adler and Morris Carnovsky, as well as playwright Clifford Odets, whose “Waiting for Lefty,” “Awake and Sing,” and “Golden Boy” were big successes for the company.
TJT, arising out of the free-spirited late 1960s and early ’70s as A Traveling Jewish Theatre, also had a collaborative and anti-commercial sensibility. But initially its founders were themselves the entire ensemble, and they had a different aesthetic: poetic language, experimental form and structure, a focus on the Jewish experience.
“In the Maze of Our Own Lives” is, understandably, an homage, complete with projected archival images of Group members and scenes from Group plays. And rather than reverting to TJT’s trademark experimentalism, or adopting the Group’s more traditional approach, Fischer has opted for a lengthy (almost three-hour) chronology spanning the entire life of the Group.
The play races through the personality conflicts, romances and internal struggles over method and artistic choices, arriving ultimately at the disbanding of the company.
But in attempting to cover such vast terrain, Fischer fails to provide emotional depth, offering instead — by way of many (too many) short scenes, a few monologues and some choral narration — bald facts, pedestrian dialogue and superficial characterizations.
It doesn’t help that there are numerous, cumbersome set changes, and that most of the actors fail to convincingly portray the fractious and charismatic Group personalities.
For example, Strasberg, rather than appearing emotionally repressed and intermittently explosive, is merely wooden; the intellectual Clurman is bland and the pair’s inauthentic New York accents mar their believability, too. The TJT women are more credible; Sarah Overman’s Stella in particular hints at a provocatively vain, brilliant and restless diva.
It’s telling that in the few scenes lifted from several Odets’ plays, the TJT cast suddenly comes to life — briefly, we glimpse the succinct characterizations and incisive dialogue that make for exciting theater. Fischer, by narrowing his focus, eschewing restrictive linear narrative, and further developing a handful of characters, could make that happen.
Presented by The Jewish Theatre San Francisco
Where: 470 Florida St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Nov. 13
Tickets: $15 to $35
Contact: (800) 838-3006, www.tjt-sf.org