Reuven Russell, right, and Sam Guncler in The Quarrel.
Photo by Jerry Dalia
See The Quarrel
The Quarrel is playing at the DR2 Theatre, 103 E. 15th St., New York, Sundays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Monday-Thursday at 8 p.m. through Sept. 28. For more information, visit www.thequarreltheplay.com
September 11, 2008
The Quarrel — a play by filmmaker, writer, and producer David Brandes and rabbi, writer, and lecturer Joseph Telushkin — is appearing in its Off-Broadway debut at the DR2 Theatre in New York City through Sept. 28.
The play had its first theatrical run at the Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey in Madison in 1999, when the director agreed to cancel Saturday performances in order to offer NJ actor and comedian Reuven Russell, who is Shabbat-observant, a starring role.
Now Off-Broadway is making history. It’s the first time a Shabbat-observant schedule is being followed at an Off-Broadway theater, once again to accommodate Russell’s adherence to Jewish law.
The play takes place on Rosh Hashana in 1948. Two old friends — Chaim, a secular writer, and Hersh, a devout rabbi — sit on a park bench in Montreal, discussing their Holocaust experiences and the tragic fate of their families and friends and rehashing their divergent views on religion and God.
Russell, whose father is famed Jewish comedian Joey Russell, had an affinity for acting since the third grade, when he played — in a wig and dress — Yenta in his Orthodox day school’s production of Fiddler on the Roof. He grew up in New Haven, Conn., and now lives with his wife and five children in Passaic.
As a religious actor and comedian for 22 years, Russell perhaps aptly plays the role of Hersh opposite Sam Guncler as Chaim (who also appeared in the original production).
Russell sees the play as an example of “the medium is the message.” Among the burning questions the drama asks, said Russell, “is whether art can play a role in someone’s religious observance.” And then, asks Russell: “Can an observant Jew be an actor who deals with art and faith?”
In 1991, Brandes adapted Chaim Grade’s Yiddish short story “My Quarrel With Hersh Rasseyner” into an award-winning film, also called The Quarrel, with Telushkin as cowriter and associate producer. They then turned it into the Playwrights Theatre production, where it ran for a few months.
Since then, the work has been staged a few times a year at synagogues, cultural centers, and museums. With its weighty dialogue, philosophical discussions, and universal themes, it has attracted audiences from every culture and ethnicity.
The Quarrel is often staged in conjunction with observances of Holocaust Memorial Day, Kristallnacht, Yom Hashoa, and 9/11.
“Any Jew would love this play regardless of affiliation,” said Russell.
Until the two characters’ chance meeting in the park — where Hersh has come for Tashlich — each friend believed the other had perished in the Holocaust. Chaim had escaped and Hersh ended up in Auschwitz. Both lost their families in the camps and now face the question of how to believe in God and religion after such a catastrophe.
Chaim is a secular poet and Hersh heads a yeshiva in Montreal, so they have opposing points of view.
Telushkin has said that he and Brandes wrote The Quarrel with an open approach so that neither side prevails. Instead, audience members must decide for themselves who “wins” the argument.
Russell said he believes the play’s goal is not to convince anyone regarding theological issues; rather it examines friendship and whether friends can love each other despite their disagreements.
Russell two years ago became artistic director of the Stern College Dramatic Society at Yeshiva University and teaches theater and public speaking there. He met Daryl Roth (the “DR” in the DR2 Theatre), who was honored years ago at the university, and she decided to bring the play to her theater with a Shabbat-observant schedule.
After Robert Walden directed a limited production of The Quarrel 10 years ago at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, Brandes contacted him to direct the current run.
Russell said he tries to portray his character accurately as an observant Jew without presenting stereotypes.
“If people can look at a Jew with a long black coat differently after seeing this play, I think that’s terrific,” he said.