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Where Have You Gone, Jimmy Stewart?

American Theater Company

Goats

Strawdog Theatre Company

If it were up to me, I'd trim down Art Shay's Where Have You Gone, Jimmy Stewart? and Alan Berks's Goats and present them as a double bill. These pieces need to be seen together, if at all, because neither is terribly compelling by itself. By far the most interesting thing about them is their uncanny and entirely unintended symmetry.

Some of that symmetry isn't so much uncanny as serendipitous. Both Goats and Where Have You Gone, Jimmy Stewart? are frankly autobiographical one-man shows, written (and in Berks's case performed) by Jewish-American males for whom being Jewish-American is a defining characteristic. Both deal mainly with experiences that brought each man to another part of the world and an ostensibly clearer understanding of himself. For the twentysomething Berks, it was the time he spent as a goatherd on a farm in the hills outside Jerusalem, just after the 1995 assassination of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. For the 80-year-old Shay, it was serving with the Eighth Air Force division, bombing the hell out of German cities during World War II.

The uncanniness creeps in with Shay's subnarrative about the loss of his son, Harmon, who disappeared into what Shay calls "Florida's hippie jungle" during the spring of 1972. Just weeks from his 21st birthday when he vanished, Harmon would be 51 now--which is to say, old enough to be Berks's father. It's Harmon's presence--secondhand, stunted, incorporeal, tragically inconclusive as it is--that serves as a sort of mystic bridge between the two shows and their authors, transforming their separate stories from evening-length anecdotes into pieces of an as-yet-unassembled American epic.

Here's Shay the patriarch: a scrappy, roosterish child of the Bronx, still apt to brag about his soapbox derby championship nearly seven decades after the fact. He enlists right after Pearl Harbor, washes out as a pilot, but earns his wings as a navigator and gets assigned to Colonel Jimmy Stewart's squadron, based in England. The war for him is a series of sexual adventures punctuated by harrowing bombing missions over Munich, Essen, Cologne, and Berlin. Although unreligious, Shay's natural chauvinism leads him to identify intensely as a Jew; even now, he remains refreshingly unreconstructed and unapologetic in his hatred of all things German.

Surprised to find himself alive after the war, Shay embarks on what will become a distinguished career as a photojournalist and author. He also starts a family. Harmon is the only one of his five children whose photo we see: a handsome prodigy with a Jewish Afro, a Bill Gates interrupted who developed a prototype personal computer at the age of 17. He leaves his grandmother's home in Miami, meaning to go only as far as Fort Lauderdale--an absurdly innocuous journey after what his father went through--and never arrives.

Which leads us, at least in my imaginary revision, to Berks. Seemingly lost even before he sets out on his travels, Berks recounts his increasing alienation from his (shiksa?) girlfriend, Catherine, as they bounce between Europe, Chicago, and the Mediterranean, finally careening off in different directions. Berks goes to Israel, thinking to earn some money before pushing east to Asia. Instead he falls in with Shi Zeltzer--a crazy, bearish, Jewish cross between Ken Kesey and Carlos Castaneda's Yaqui guru, Don Juan--who makes exotic goat cheeses and talks, when he feels like it, telepathically. Stuck with Zeltzer, 120 goats, and his own pathetic confusions on an isolated mountain farm as Israeli-Palestinian violence builds around him, Berks discovers a Jewish identity that stretches beyond Shay's chauvinism and Harmon's sweet, sad, unfulfilled potential. That turns out, in fact, to be less an identity than a tool for discovery as he seeks out something more profound but as yet unspecified.

What a yarn, I say: The Godfather, recast as a modern Jewish spiritual quest. With a happy ending no less.

Unfortunately, it's a yarn neither Shay nor Berks actually tells in his show. Although bracing in its ribald, truculent energy, Where Have You Gone, Jimmy Stewart? is essentially pointless except as a means for Shay to get his version of things on the record. He seems especially determined to make sure that Harmon will not be forgotten: a backlit photograph of the lost child goes on and off so often that he begins to look like a bumper in a morbid pinball game. John Sterchi's performance never gets at the feisty, bite-your-head-off egotism so apparent in Shay's lines--and under Mike Nussbaum's nostalgic direction, isn't likely to do so as the run goes on.

To his credit, Berks apparently senses the need for context in Goats and goes searching for one. He never really arrives at it, though. He seems far too enamored of details that may fascinate him--that he may find whimsical or even true--but that only slow down and obscure the narrative. Catherine is a case in point: a footnote who's given her own chapter. Even if Berks decides not to take my advice about hooking up with Shay, he might consider paring Goats down to a single, sharp act.

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