PITTSFIELD -- At a time when immigration policy is at or near the top of political conversation these days, along comes Robert Sugarman's new play, "Kaufman's Barber Shop" and its central question, "What does it mean to be an American?"
I'm not sure the broader political discourse was on Sugarman's mind when he began work on "Kaufman's Barber Shop" two years ago -- he also reportedly is at work on a prequel and on a sequel -- but that larger social context resonates through this well-intentioned, modest-seeming play nonetheless.
Set in a Jewish barber shop in downtown Syracuse, N.Y., in 1925, Sugarman's overly ambitious "Kaufman's Barber Shop" -- which is being given a well-acted, limited-run (there are only two performances left) world premiere by Shakespeare & Company in the atmospheric Upstreet Barbers on Pittsfield's North Street -- draws on Sugarman's own experience growing up in Syracuse, where he had his hair cut in a shop not unlike Kaufman's.
The proprietor, Jake Kaufman (a fairly collegial Robert Lohbauer who works a bit harder than he needs to to persuade us of Jake's essentially laid back accepting manner) is a wannabe vaudevillian whose barber shop is a place where, he says, "I cut hair (and) people come to relax."
His longtime regulars are Jesse Markowitz (an agreeable Malcolm Ingram), a ukulele-playing jeweler and Morris Schwartz (Jonathan Croy in a powerful performance), an assistant district attorney who has learned quickly -- though not quickly enough, it turns out -- how to wield what power and influence he has to further his political ambitions.
Morris and particularly his wife enjoy the social perks that come with his position. But Morris, the only Jew in a Gentile political enclave in City Hall, is not above betraying his Jewish community for his own needs. Not just the Jewish community. Morris tries to take advantage of Jake's shoeshine man, Walter (an engaging Thomas Brazzle), a bright, smart, talented African-American with ambitions of his own. Walter writes a freelance column for Langston Hughes' Amsterdam News in Harlem, drawing from conversations and comings-and-goings in Jake's barber shop for his observations about life. Fearful that he might wind up being quoted by Walter, Morris tries to pressure Walter into a quid-pro-quo arrangement -- Walter will let Morris read his columns before he sends them off to New York in return for which Morris will help Walter find out the truth behind the accidental death of Walter's father at the hands of a city public transit vehicle.
Jake, Jesse and Morris -- and Jake's young Irish manicurist, Maggie (a luminous Kate Abbruzzese) -- are next-generation immigrants, born into families who have come to these shores in search of opportunity and a life free of persecution in America's live-and-let-live melting pot.
Father Charles Edward Coughlin had not yet begun his anti-Semitic diatribes on the radio. McCarthyism was another 21 2 decades away and the tea party was still only a colonial-era protest against British tax policy. But the roots of McCarthyism and the tea party movement run deep in the American fabric, Sugarman suggests, and the times, in "Kaufman's Barber Shop," they are a-changing. The openness and trust upon which the contract between America and its citizens rests is giving way to fear, fear of the Other, the Different -- anarchists, Communists, Jews, blacks, anyone who speaks with foreign accent. "Why can't you act like Americans?" Morris asks Jake and Jesse with a blend of frustration, anger and confusion. Morris can neither accept nor recognize that his notion of acting like an American differs from what that notion means to Jake, Jesse, Walter and Maggie.
There is hardly a social issue that Sugarman doesn't crowd into his dense play -- miscegenation; abortion; prejudice; bigotry; ethnic and cultural identity; American values; the meaning of freedom and individuality; the crimes and misdemeanors of capitalism and America's political institutions; the use and abuse of power. That it all remains under control, if only barely, at times, says a good deal about the strengths of a cast whose members do find something of the human element in Sugarman's little microcosm.