This musical romp lends much to be desired. The script is full of good ideas and interesting angles. It’s just too bad no one bothered to try and plumb its depths.
Reviewed by Matthew Barbot
Fritz and Froyim hits you with a premise so bizarre that it just rides the line of intriguing, threatening at any moment to fall off the other side of the ledge. The play opens with Fritz (T.J. Mannix), a former SS officer living in post-war Germany, doing his cabaret ventriloquist act with Dr. Froyim, his Jewish puppet, who actually turns out to just be the mouthpiece for the real Froyim (Matthew Hardy), the ghost of a Jewish cabaret comedian killed in the death camps. The two make their money traveling throughout the Fatherland performing, tapping, and doing jokes about the Holocaust, the Reich, and the Führer. The play then backtracks nearly a decade, to the middle of the war, to show us the toll the end of WWII had on the soldiers of the Reich as Fritz’s life spirals out of control, due both to him being unfit for any work outside the military, as well as the lingering presence of Froyim’s spirit – which may very well be his own growing psychosis. Froyim seems determined to take everything Fritz loves away from him in order to force him into going on stage again with a new cabaret act. As Fritz loses his grip, he grows closer and closer to the spirit, until he is finally forced to face his heinous, genocidal past.
Oh yeah. It’s a musical comedy.
And really, that’s the first in a slew of poor choices that keep what could be a really great script from being very good at all. The show’s premise, and the way it’s handled – for the most part – under John W. Cooper’s direction work very nicely. But the absurd elements – making the show a musical with a cabaret pianist narrator - seem included simply to underscore the comedy and the absurdity, as if to remind the audience it's okay to like the Nazi character, and no, you don’t have to feel guilty for laughing at a Holocaust joke or two.
However, rather than underscoring, these elements serve only to undercut. The play is at its best when no one’s singing, no one’s dancing, and the narrator is silent. The narrator’s weary, rude, cynical act gets tired very, very quickly, and all she does is tell you every single thing that’s going to happen in the scene you’re about to watch anyway. The songs are often poorly written – with the exception of the excellent “I Keep a Kosher Home” and a few other klezmer inspired songs – and they all sound the same, doing little to advance the story or expound on ideas. Perhaps if Beim had spent more time with his well-written book and axed the music and the narrator, he’d have more time to develop the themes of loneliness, isolation, regret, shattered ideals, and dealing with the past's horrors. Fritz and Froyim is at its best when its strange premise is being played as a sardonic, subtle dark comedy with stretches of real emotion, not when it’s over the top, and the far superior second act demonstrates this nicely.
Of course, that’s not all Beim’s fault. The cast is altogether strong, especially Hardy, who lights up the stage and makes everyone on it with him look better. Other highlights are Richard B. Watson and Dennis Holland, who each inhabit a number of roles and make each one unique. Mannix plays Fritz as an everyman, an all around nice, friendly guy, which both serves to make him relatable and robs him of depth at the same time. But this is a problem all throughout the show: it seems no one – except Hardy – sat down with the script and wondered at the themes, at their characters’ inner lives and motivations, at the reasons the writer made certain choices.
Fritz and Froyim is a series of great ideas that could be a truly great play one day. The cast does well, and the director and technical crew do an impressive job of squeezing everything they can out of their shoestring budget. For now, though, the play needs a rewrite.
Fritz and Froyim (Ends June 16th)
Monday - 7:00 PM; Wednesday and Thursday - 8:00 PM
The Turtle's Shell Theater, Times Square Arts Center
300 West 43rd Street, 4th Floor
New York, NY 10036
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