Beginning with its title, Mark Berman's "Albert Einstein Never Sang at the Met" is peppered with whimsical eccentric touches.
Set in Brooklyn in the mid-1950s, the play, which is at the Spotlighters Theatre as part of the Baltimore Playwrights Festival, is a little like a gently ethnic "You Can't Take It With You." Though not as smoothly crafted, in its brightest moments it suggests what George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart might have written if they could have brought in Neil Simon as a consultant. ("You want me to focus on the future. I can't. Not now. It would rob me of my bitterness," a character says at one point.)
The bulk of the humor derives from the characters, who seem to be competing for the title of most colorful. The exception is the protagonist -- an intelligent, responsible but struggling book dealer named Jacob Popitch. For most of the play, Jacob is a paragon of normalcy, making this lead role one of the least interesting on stage. However, this is a play about people crazy enough to dream -- and to act on their dreams. Jacob eventually succumbs to the craziness around him, and once he does, actor Richard Jackson seems much more comfortable in the part.
The source of Jacob's craziness is passion. For that matter, all of the characters are ruled by various passions and most of the humor stems from the fact that, though their passions are small, the characters treat them as anything but.
Jacob's particular passion is for a married over-the-hill soprano named Ingrid; her passion is opera, and Lynne R. Sigler clearly exults in the opportunity to react to everything as if it were opera. In turn, Jacob's brother Nathan -- played by Peter Wilkes as an absent-minded professor type -- has a passion for science; he's been working for years to perfect a non-pinching zipper. And despite a rather flat delivery, Doris Margulis manages to convey warm-hearted Mama Popitch's passion for the boys' deceased father; she continues to go on imaginary dates with him, even though he walked out on the family years ago.
It's all too easy to imagine these characters on a television series, and the script is constructed in short scenes that could readily accommodate commercial breaks. But one of the best things about the Spotlighters' production, which is directed by the playwright, is the theatrical fluidity of the staging. Especially in the first act, one scene blends almost seamlessly into the next, with changes in setting and time suggested merely by having a character turn and join in a scene across the stage. The production also boasts a fresh, spirited performance by Jason Winer as Jacob's eager teen-age clerk.
Mark Berman is one of the Baltimore Playwrights Festival's more experienced playwrights; a professional actor as well as
playwright, he has had scripts produced at regional theaters across the country. Yet ultimately, this episodic play has the feel of an early work; it exudes plenty of affection, but like its lovably wacky characters, it displays more passion than polish.
'Albert Einstein Never Sangat the Met'
When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m. Through Aug. 30.
Where: Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St.
Call: (410) 752-1225.