PITTSFIELD -- These days, Upstreet Barbers sells more than haircuts. After customers leave, a Shakespeare & Company crew transforms the North Street business into a 1920s-era Syracuse salon, the setting for Robert Sugarman’s play, "Kaufman’s Barber Shop," now receiving its world premiere presentation through Sept. 1.
Company veterans Robert Lohbauer, Jonathan Croy and Malcolm Ingram -- who also appear in "Heroes" this season -- play Kaufman and his customers, with Katherine Abbruzzese and Thomas Brazzle as his staff.
Before the first performance, prolific playwright and theater professor Robert Sugarman, 86, was reached at his desk, "finally typing up a clean copy of the script after all the changes we’ve made," he said.
A radio theater program co-host with his wife, Sally, he counts Shakespeare & Company personnel among his favorite guests.
"We’ve been going there for 27 years," he recalled.
His friendship with company founder Tina Packer blossomed over a mutual admiration for British theatrical innovator and Sugarman’s friend, Joan Littlewood.
Three generations of his family have company connections. His son and his family studied and performed there. But this is the first time Sugarman has ventured past the footlights.
"I grew up in that Jewish barber shop in downtown Syracuse," he explained. "That was where I had all my haircuts ‘til I went off to college."
"I was fascinated by my father’s generation, children of Jewish immigrants who arrived at the end of the 19th century, and whose parents spoke Yiddish."
Despite widespread restrictions for Jews, through education they became professionals and businessmen.
"They were living the American dream before the Depression hit," Sugarman said. "It was a kind of qualified success, but they were feeling good about themselves."
The play addresses aspiration and prejudice from many angles.
"One of the best characters in my play is an African-American," Sugarman said.
Noted theater and film director Regge Life was initially brought on board for a well-received staged reading two years ago by Tony Simotes, former NYU classmate and Shakespeare & Company artistic director.
"It’s been 20 years since I’ve had a real production," Sugarman said, "going from the isolation of writing to working with actors and a director."
Over a "power lunch at the Pittsfield Friendly’s," he had mentioned that his father’s friends, while often disagreeing politically, enjoyed singing vaudeville songs around a piano. Like Eddie Cantor and the Marx Brothers before them, "many of these guys had thought about going into vaudeville," he said.
Life subsequently incorporated several songs into the show, with ukulele accompaniment by Ingram.
From music direction by Alex Sovronsky to period costuming by Govane Lohbauer, Sugarman said, "it’s so wonderful to have all these resources to draw on."
"Barber shops are interesting places," Life observed from his Columbia County home. "They’re community places where people go to gather and find out what’s going on in the neighborhood."
"There’s something very primal that takes us back to our original state of gathering round a campfire," he said.
In minority communities, he explained, a barber shop can become a safe place "where people can go and get renewed -- you can be yourself, speak in a way that maybe you can’t on Main Street."
The play, Life explained, is about what it is to be an American: the promise of this country and how we interpret and seize the opportunity.
"If you want to do or be something, America is the place you go," he said. "If you’re an American by birth, are you going to just sit around and complain, or are you going to actually seize the day and better yourself?"
Everybody in "Kaufman’s Barber Shop" is a minority or immigrant in 1925, he pointed out; "you’re seeing these people’s hopes, dreams, fears, all through the prism of being the underdog."
Even the shoeshine man has literary aspirations.
"He’s being mentored by Langston Hughes -- he’s in that second line of poets and writers that came after him," Life said.
Simotes had the idea to stage the play in an actual barber shop, Life said, where everything is real, from running water to barbering utensils.
"With no stage lights, you can watch everything at the same time," he said.
The entrance to the barber shop is also the entrance for the show, Sugarman cautioned, and with space for just 50 seats, you can’t come late.
f you go ...
What: Shakespeare & Company presents ‘Kaufman’s Barber Shop,’ Written by Robert Sugarman, directed by Regge Life
Where: Upstreet Barbers, 442 North Street, Pittsfield
When: Through Sept. 1