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A Memory Play of Family Feuds
To get from Amboy Street in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn to Park Avenue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan is roughly 12 miles. For Norman Shabel, the journey took 20 years to complete.
Shabel is a South Jersey-based class action litigator/author/ playwright who has turned his memories of growing up in that predominantly Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood of the mid-20th century into the new play, Marty’s Back in Town, which opened Nov. 14 at the Skybox at the Adrienne Theatre in Center City.
The autobiographical work deals with the fallout experienced by a family when Marty, the prodigal son, returns home in 1980 after a decade-long absence. Convinced he is dying, Marty tries to re-integrate himself into a family that has long since moved on, both emotionally and geographically, having traded their Brownsville tenement for the Upper East Side accommodations that Norman, the son who stayed, is able to provide now that he is a successful lawyer.
The obvious question: Why did Shabel decide that now was the right time to produce his play?
He says the reason is simple: He found it.
“I wrote the script 20 years ago,” he explains. “When I recently moved from one house to another, I found it. When I re-read it, I was just amazed by it — it was so real.”
Although he is decades removed from the old neighborhood, Shabel never really left it, which he discovered when he was asked by a childhood friend to co-author and produce a play off-Broadway called Brownsville Revisited. “Doing that motivated me to write Marty’s Back in Town,” he says.
The play revolves around the tension between Marty and his younger brother, Norman, who, even as 40-something adults, find themselves fighting again like teenagers. This, too, is autobiographical, Shabel says. “The crux of the story is that Marty was not a very nice young man.” During their younger years, when Shabel’s family ran into dire financial straits after their father was injured at his job in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the brothers both went out to earn money to make up for the shortfall. Shabel remembers that “Marty would make money — but he wouldn’t give it to the family.”
As in so many families faced with potentially ruinous internecine discord, it is up to the matriarch to hold things together. Marty’s mother, known to all but her husband as Momma, is as much of the linchpin to the play as she was to Shabel in real life. And, in a stroke of beshert casting, Barry Brait, the play’s director, was able to get Sylvia Kauders to portray Momma.
You may not recognize the name, but you will most certainly recognize the face. Since transitioning from her position as the special events director for Philadelphia (she was responsible for every major event in the city, including the pre-Welcome America version of July Fourth) to an acting career — “I went from my vocation to my avocation,” as she puts it — Kauders has been a constant presence onstage and onscreen.
She originated the role of Bubbie in Crossing Delancey, has been in countless commercials for everything from Visa to the Pennsylvania Lottery, and has appeared in dozens of movies, from 1985’s Witness to the upcoming film from the Coen Brothers, Inside Llewyn Davis.
With her unique look and voice in such great demand — she says she has turned down two screen roles since rehearsals for Marty started — why did Kauders choose to get back onstage in Philadelphia for the first time in 30 years?
“I decided I had one more play left in me,” says the actress, who will only say about her age that she is “65 to death.”
“Maybe I have more in me, but for now, I decided I have one more left in me. And frankly, I wanted to do it for my hometown audience.”
Whatever she is doing certainly works for Shabel. He recalls that when he heard her audition, he found himself crying and laughing at the same time because her interpretation was so spot on.
Now that he has found the play and seen his past come to life onstage, has he found any kind of closure in regards to his relationship with the real Marty?
“Redemption is the way everything should end,” Shabel replies. “I don’t know if there’s any closure psychologically, but I do know that there will be a psychologist on hand after one of the performances to talk about the relationships.”
Shabel says he will be in attendance; odds are that if he finds the germ of his next play in the discussion, he won’t misplace it this time.
If You Go
Marty’s Back in Town runs through Dec. 2 at the Skybox at the Adrienne Theatre, 2030 Sansom St., Philadelphia
For information on times and tickets: www.martysbackintown.com; 1-800-838-3006.